A Thousand Golden Domes: The Churches of Kiev, Ukraine.
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Kyiv’s (Kiev) history is a lesson in disintegration rather than centralized state-building, but it has a rich history that dates to ambiguous beginnings in the 6th century. During this time Slavic tribes competed with other nomadic peoples, notably the Khazars, whose Turkic origins were from farther east. The location of future Kyiv, on the edge of Eurasia’s broad steppes, became a vacuum of sorts, and this encouraged the movement of peoples across the region. By the 10th century the Varangians took control of the area and established the basis of the Rus’ state. The Ruriks, as they were called, adopted Christianity in 988 when Grand Prince Vladimir was baptized along the banks of the Dnieper River. The Kievan states were virtual city-states with huge feudal holdings that were ruled by various members of the factious Rurik family. It was also during this ‘Golden Age’ that Kyiv’s church buildings were constructed and it became a center of Eastern Christianity. Its location was on the geographical frontiers of Christianity and Byzantium had a strong influence on the city, through which it developed strong cultural ties. Kyiv remained the defacto East Slavic political and cultural capital until the Mongol invasions of 1240. These waves of invaders devastated the city along with much of eastern and northern Europe as far west as Poland and thereafter Kyiv’s importance was marginalized, at least politically. In the middle of the 14th century Kyiv fell under the control of the Lithuanian Kingdom and by 1569 under Poland. It remained under Polish administration until the middle of the 17th century when a Cossack quasi-state was established in the lower Dnieper regions. However, by 1654 Kyiv fell under the influence of the expanding Russian state where it would mostly remain until the various changes in the 20th century. At the end of World War I, Kyiv (Kiev is the Russian spelling) became the capital of the short-lived Republic of Ukraine. The Red Army quickly took control of the city and it was incorporated as the capital of the Ukrainian S.S.R. until independence in 1991. It’s this rich and complicated history that lends itself to the broad arrangement of religious monuments and heritage that are found in the city today.
It’s the city’s churches and monuments that tourist come to see – and they are well worth a dedicated visit. It’s no coincidence that the city was known as “the city of a thousand golden domes”. While it’s unlikely you’ll count that many the saying is appropriate and there are a number of domed churches and monasteries that shouldn’t be left out of any itinerary. There are a few distinct and unique districts in Kyiv that the visitor should orient themselves. The main street of Kiev is Khreshchatyk. You are not likely to find any significant historic monuments here, but the view of the Stalinist architecture along this main thoroughfare is interesting in itself, and a dubious monument to state planning. The street was completely destroyed in WWII and had to be rebuilt. It is now lined with cafes, bars, and trendy shops and leads to various historic points in the city. There are also many hotels nearby so it’s logically a good starting point for the visitor.
The old part of Kyiv is just up the hill from Khreshchatyk Street along Volodymyrska Street which runs parallel to Khreshchtatyk. Both streets run southwest to northeast. A good point of orientation is to start from the Golden Gate (Zoloti Vorota), which is a reconstruction of the original southern gate to the city, one of three that originally guarded the walled Medieval city. Today’s reconstruction, which began in the 1970s and culminated in 1982 with the 1500 anniversary of the city, should not be overlooked as artificial. Although no one knows for certain how the original gate looked, today’s reconstructed gate stands on the exact location and is built atop the ruins of the original. Also located on Volodymyrska Street is the oldest church in the city, Saint Sophia. The name is no accident as the original inspiration for this church cathedral built between 1031 and 1070 was Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom) in Constantinople. It represented a northern outpost of the Byzantine culture and faith. Today’s structure has a distinct Ukrainian baroque shell, built between 1633 and 1740 by Octaviano Mancini, but otherwise the Byzantine interior is beautifully intact. One look in the interior will verify the authenticity of this ornate building, whose mosaics and frescoes date to the eleventh century. The most famous of these is the Virgin Orans. Saint Sophia has five apses, five naves, and thirteen domes, or cupolas. The sarcophagus of Yaroslav the Wise (978 – 1054), who commissioned the Church, is inside. Yaroslav the Wise was Grand Prince of Novgorad and Kiev. Not surprisingly, Saint Sophia’s is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Not too far from Saint Sophia’s, just at the northern end of Volodymyrska Street, and within a five minute walk is the beautifully ornate church of St. Andrew’s, which is one of the few that survived intact Stalin’s orders to implode most the city’s most historical religious monuments. Easily recognized by its blue exterior and central dome, surrounded by four spires, St. Andrew’s in the artsy and ancient Podil section of the city was designed by the Italian Rastrelli between 1747 and 1754. A church dedicated to the apostle St. Andrew, who according to legend, erected a cross in the 1st century on the banks of the Dnieper River, has stood in one form or another in the general area since 1086, although most of the predecessors were wooden. In 1690 a wooden church was built on the present location. The interior of this Orthodox church is just as beautiful as the exterior, if not more but unfortunately the location on a steep hillside has caused the foundation to shift and the building remains somewhat unstable. Along with St. Andrew’s, St. Michael’s is arguably the city’s most beautiful church although its history is quite different. Rebuilt in splendid Ukrainian baroque the long name of this complex is St. Michael’s Golden Domed Monastery. It dates to the 11th century where a church structure remained on the spot until 1936. Stalin had this beautiful building imploded and after independence it was rebuilt. It is within walking distance of both St. Andrew’s and St. Sophia’s and sits on a bluff that overlooks the DnieperRiver. Just as noticeable is the accompanying bell tower which is colored in the same light-blue pastel with white trim. Of course, as the name would imply, the domes of the church-monastery are golden. The church, which has a functioning monastery, is part of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church –Kiev Patriarchate. Much of the original art, which was on display in the HermitageMuseum in Leningrad before its implosion, was returned from Russia. The crypts of the cathedral were uncovered during reconstruction and remain intact. St. Volodymyr’s Cathedral is also known by other names such as St. Vladimir’s. This Cathedral, the mother church of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Kyiv Patriarchate sits along the well traveled Tarasa Shevchenka Street and is easily recognized by its neo-Byzantine designed with seven gold-toped cupolas, the highest 49 meters (161’) above street level. As it was completed in 1886 (begun in 1862) it is one of the newer religious monuments in the city, although it survived World War II. The Pechersk Lavra, also know as the Monastery of the Caves, because of its well-known catacombs, is along with St. Sophia’s, the best known church-monument in the city, if not the country. Founded in 1015 the Monastery served as the center of early Eastern European Orthodoxy. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the property’s jurisdiction is split between the StateMuseum, the National Kiev-Pechersk Historic-Cultural Preserve, and the headquarters of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church Moscow Patriarchate. Among the sprawling complex are numerous buildings with various types of architecture. One can get a better appreciation for the complex when viewed from the DnieperRiver. The best known buildings are the Great Lavra Belltower, constructed between 1731 and 1745. From its base to the tip of the cross it is 316 feet tall, or 96.5 meters. The Cathedral of the Dormition, imploded by Stalin in the 1930s, was rebuilt and rededicated in 2005. The monastery complex’s other distinguished feature are the number of historical figures buried within its walls or under its ground. Among those are Ilya Muromets (12th century), Nestor the Chronicler (1114), Saint Kuksha (1114), Agapetus of Pechersk (11th century), Oleg (12th century), and Pyotr Stolypin in 1911. Stolypin, Prime Minister of Russia, was assassinated by a leftist radical and was best known as the architect of the Stolypin Reforms – the last ditch efforts to reform a decadent and backward Imperial Russia. Other honorable mentions who are interred are Alipy of the Caves, Eufemia of Kiev (daughter of Vladimir II Monomakh), Yuri Dolgoruki, Skirgalia, Vasily Kochubey, and Ivan Iskra. Vydubychi Monastery, located close to Perchersk Lavra in the city’s southeast corner, is often ignored because it’s in the shadow of the much grander church complex. Located on the steep bluff above the Dnieper, this monastery’s history is ancient and worth a separate visit. It was established between 1070 and 1077. Although many of the buildings are in the Ukrainian baroque style, some date to the eleventh century, such as the Collegiate Church of St. Michael. The monastery is part of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church - Kiev Patriarchate. St. Nicholas Roman Catholic Cathedral remains the center of the relatively small but constant Roman Catholic community that dates to the Polish occupation of the city in the sixteenth century. Built in neo-Gothic style between 1899 and 1909, this large building was closed during the Soviet era but masses were restarted in 1992. It is located at 77 Velyka Vasilykivska Street. St. Catherine (Lutheran) dates to 1857 and not surprisingly was closed during the Soviet period. It represents the cornerstone of the German Evangelical Lutheran community which first held services in Kiev in 1767. Its significance as a LutheranChurch demonstrates the surprising breadth of Kiev’s historical spiritual community. In 1998 it was returned to the Lutherans after being used as a warehouse and museum for 60 years. St. Catherine’s is the largest German Evangelical Lutheran community in Ukraine and many of the parishioners are the descendants of the German Lutherans who immigrated to Ukraine and Russia. It is located on the west side of Sofiaska Ploscha, adjacent to the well-known cathedral. The Church of the Nativity of Christ was originally built between 1809 and 1814. This church was one of many destroyed by Stalin in the 1930s. Its fame rests on being the church where Shevchenko’s body (Shevchenko was the national poet-bard of Ukraine) was laid before taken to Kaniv, the final burial spot of Taras Shevchenko. It is located at Poshtova Square in the Podil section. The Church of the Theotokos was destroyed by Stalin in the 1930s and has not been rebuilt since. There is a memorial to its location in the Podil region of the city. It originally dated from 1132 and underwent numerous reconstructions most notably in 1613 and the 1870s. Its final appearance was in the Ukrainian baroque style. The foundations from recent excavations are said to be four meters deep. The Patriarchal Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ is still under construction and when complete will be the new seat of the worldwide Ukrainian Greco Catholic Church, which was formerly based in Lviv, in western Ukraine. Moving the seat to Kyiv caused some controversy notably among various Orthodox archbishops and metropolitans because the Ukrainian Greco-Catholic Church is in full communion with the Roman Catholic Church and the placement of the new cathedral, the seat of the Archeparchy of Kyiv-Halych, represents to many an encroachment of Catholicism in traditionally Orthodox territory.
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