Kiev, Hagia Sophia

Also known as St Sophia's cathedral
Era 11AD
Location Volodymyrska St, 24, Kyiv, Ukraine, 01001

The church of St Sophia in Kiev was begun by Jaroslav (1019-54), Grand Prince of Kiev, perhaps in 1037 and inaugurated in 1046. It is generally accepted that the mosaic and fresco interior decoration was completed by this point.

St Sophia is a huge church – it covers an area of about 486 metres. It has an elaborate multi-domed cross-in-square plan, with five aisles or naves and an open gallery around three sides of the interior. It seems that originally mosaic covered about 640 square metres of the church, in the dome and the area under the dome, the bema and the apse; now only about 260 metres2 survive. The mosaics still draw the eye to the part of the cathedral where the sacred ceremonies were (and are) performed. In the dome is a Christ Pantokrator with angels or archangels; the four evangelists occupy the spandrels; and a scene of the Annunciation and the busts of the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste fill the arches (only fifteen survive). (Fig. 129) In the apse is a standing orant Mother of God, about five and a half metres high. Below her, the Communion of the Apostles is shown: the Apostles, ranged six and six, receive bread and wine from Christ in the centre. Beneath are ten saintly deacons and bishops. The lost mosaics of the bema showed Old Testament kings and prophets; the vault of the bema may have held the Empty Throne. Although gold and silver tesserae are used, there is no marble revetment as with many Byzantine churches; instead, the frescoes cover the walls: the quantity of fresco may reflect a need to use imported mosaic materials sparingly. They continue the themes of the mosaics and are felt to be of a similar date and part of the same cycle.

The place of St Sophia among the mosaics of the eleventh century, the likely use of mosaicists from Constantinople in their making and the subsequent judgements of their quality have dominated scholarly discussions. Art historians have been rude about the Mother of God in the apse, describing her as ‘archaic’ and provincial, and as a ‘third-rate’ production. This seems unnecessary. I reckon she’s pretty good myself.


Kiev was the main centre of the Rus’, in effect their capital from the mid-tenth century into the twelfth century. The Rus’ themselves were (put simplistically) people from the steppes of Central Europe who formed themselves into networks of what have been called principalities in and around Cherson, under one Grand Prince based in Kiev. Both Rome and the Byzantine Empire sought influence in the region, with conversion as an aim and a tool of manipulation. In the tenth century, Jaroslav’s great-grandmother, Ol’ga, had flirted with Latin Christianity before converting to Orthodoxy, but even in the late eleventh century, the Rus’ were still negotiating with the Papacy. The Rus’ relationship with the Byzantine Empire was an aggressive one: in the early tenth century, there had been Rus’ raids on Byzantine territories in modern Bulgaria and Constantinople itself. Emperor Basil II had been compelled to form an alliance with Grand Prince Vladimir I of Kiev (978 or 980-1015). Basil’s sister had been married to Vladimir in 987 in in a deal that saw Vladimir convert to Orthodoxy and support Basil with a large army in his on-going civil war.

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