St. Sophia Cathedral in Novgorod, Russia

The St. Sophia Cathedral in Novgorod is the second oldest sacred building of the Russian Orthodox Church and houses the world-famous Bronze Door of Płock.

St. Sophia Cathedral in the Russian city of Novgorod is the second oldest sacred building of the Russian Orthodox Church after the cathedral of the same name in Kiev and the seat of the Novgorod Archbishopric in the Novgorod Kremlin. In 1992, it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site along with the Old Town of Veliky Novgorod. It also features on our list of the top 10 sights of Russia.


Construction of St. Sophia Cathedral in Novgorod

St. Sophia Cathedral in Novgorod was built around 1050 by Vladimir of Novgorod in place of a wooden church and consecrated by Bishop Luka Zhidiata. It is the oldest church building in Russia still in use. St. Sophia Cathedral is not dedicated to a saint named Sophia, but - similar to Hagia Sophia in Istanbul - to the all-embracing wisdom of God.

From the 12th to the 15th century, St. Sophia's Cathedral was the spiritual and cultural centre of the then Republic of Novgorod, and Novgorodians were incredibly proud of their magnificent Cathedral of Holy Wisdom. A saying went, "We have no princes, we have only God, Truth and Holy Wisdom."

Vladimir of Novgorod himself was the first to be buried in "his" church. Besides him, 47 other prominent people of Novgorod, including 32 bishops, found their final resting place in St. Sophia's Cathedral until 1912.

Unique architecture of the Sophia Cathedral

The stone St Sophia Cathedral shines in bright white, which really shows off its five silver and 38m high golden dome. The austere architecture deviated greatly from the Greek-inspired church buildings of the time.

In contrast to its broad ground plan and many towers, St. Sophia's Cathedral strives rather slenderly skywards. The highest tower leads to a gallery, which in the Middle Ages housed a valuable library established by Yaroslav the Wise. When it was moved to St Petersburg in 1859, it contained 1,500 volumes, some of them over 500 years old. Archbishop Nikolai L'vovich Tserpitskii re-established a library from the old tradition, which now contains over 5,000 volumes.

The paintings in the interior of the church from the early 12th century were restored in the mid-19th century. One of the chandeliers installed by Archbishop Leonid in the 16th century has survived the years until today.

The oldest icon in St. Sophia Cathedral is the "Mother of God of the Sign" from 1169, which once saved Novgorod from an attack by the Suzdals. It can be found on the iconostasis. Also there is the world-famous bronze door of Płock, which impresses with its 26 panels with breathtakingly detailed figurines.


The Bronze Door from Płock

The bronze door, artistically cast in Magdeburg in the middle of the 12th century, was originally intended for the Polish cathedral in Płock, where, according to research, it was also installed. For some inexplicable reason, however, it turned up 250 years later in Novgorod - whether it was stolen or given as a gift, God only knows.

However, the masterful bronze door remained in the Novgorod St. Sophia Cathedral; the cathedral in Płock is merely adorned with a copy. On the door are immortalised in incredible detail knights and beasts, the birth and death of Jesus, prophets and bishops, as well as the door's creators.


St. Sophia's Cathedral in Novgorod survived the Second World War relatively unscathed, only the domes were destroyed and with them the magnificent mosaic of Christ Pantocrator in the central dome.

The cross of the main dome was stolen by the Spanish and adorned the Military Academy Museum in Madrid for a long time, until it was finally returned to the Russian Orthodox Church by the Spanish Minister of Defence in 2004. During the Soviet period, St. Sophia's Cathedral functioned as a museum, but since 1991 masses have been held again.