St. Sophia Cathedral in Kiev, Ukraine

St. Sophia's Cathedral in Kiev is considered an absolute masterpiece of Christian art in Europe. While the outer walls of the cathedral were severely damaged and rebuilt, the magnificent 11th century Byzantine interior of the cathedral was largely preserved.

St. Sophia's Cathedral in the Ukrainian capital Kiev is considered a masterpiece of Christian architecture in Europe. In 1990, it was added to UNESCO's World Heritage List and in 2007 it was declared one of the Seven Wonders of the World in Ukraine. There is a saying that anyone who has not seen St. Sophia's Cathedral has never really got to know Kiev.


PICTURES: St. Sophia Cathedral in Kiev


The construction of St. Sophia's Cathedral was begun in 1037, after the Pechenegs had been defeated by Kiev's Prince Yaroslav the Wise a year earlier. His white marble sarcophagus is still preserved in the cathedral today. The original 11th century building was already magnificent, measuring just under 40m long, 55m wide and almost 30m high. The model for St. Sophia's Cathedral was Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, which was also originally built as a Christian church.

Monumental significance of St. Sophia's Cathedral

With its magnificent seven domes and five-nave interior, it functioned as the main cathedral of Kievan Rus, a great empire that is now considered the predecessor of the states of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine. It was intended to herald the wisdom of Christianity, hence Sophia, the Wise, as its namesake, and the political power of the Russians. Kings were crowned and buried and state guests received in the monumental St. Sophia Cathedral. Kiev's first library was also located in St. Sophia' s Cathedral.

St. Sophia's Cathedral in Kiev was the place where kings were crowned and buried, state guests were received and the city's first library was established, Ukraine - © srgktk / Shutterstock
© srgktk / Shutterstock

The decline of Kiev as an important Russian city and the destruction of St. Sophia's Cathedral began in the mid-13th century with the invasion of the Mongols, who were succeeded by the Crimean Tatars. Until the 17th century, the cathedral was increasingly damaged until the first reconstruction was started under Petro Mohyla. In the course of this, the exterior galleries were closed, making the church appear even more voluminous today. However, hardly anything was changed in the Byzantine interior.

It was not until the beginning of the 18th century, after St. Sophia's Cathedral had fallen victim to a fire in 1697, that the church was completely rebuilt in the Ukrainian Baroque style under Tsar Peter I. An additional storey, the six additional dark green pear-shaped domes, the outer wall, a spiritual seminary, the south gate and the heated refectory, the "warm Sophie", date from this period. The imposing bell tower was also extended to a height of almost 80m.

In 1934, St. Sophia's Cathedral was briefly closed and turned into a museum, but after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, it was returned to the Orthodox Church. However, the Kiev and Moscow Patriarchates could not agree on who owned the church and the Ukrainian Catholic Church also made claims, so the state turned the cathedral into a museum again.

Spectacular interior from the 11th century

3,000m2 of frescoes and 260m2 of mosaics can be admired in St. Sophia's Cathedral in Kiev, Ukraine, here the 6m-high "Praying Mother of God" - © NataliaBratslavsky/Shutterstock
© NataliaBratslavsky/Shutterstock

The breathtaking interior decoration was also based on the Byzantine model. While almost no originals remain of the outer walls of the cathedral, the interior of St. Sophia's Cathedral still shines today with the magnificent wall decorations of yesteryear.

Worldwide unique 3,000 square metres of frescoes and 260 square metres of mosaics in 177 shades can be admired in St. Sophia's Cathedral, the most famous of which are the 6m high "Praying Mother of God" and the "Pantocrator".


Other works of art depict scenes from the Bible, the 12 apostles, church leaders and soldiers. The main room is adorned by a magnificent golden iconostasis, of which, however, only a few originals remain. In keeping with its function as a museum, more 12th-century mosaics and frescoes from St Michael's Cathedral and a 13-ton bronze bell from 1705 can be seen on the second floor. A model of Kiev from the Middle Ages is also on display here.

Related links:

Info on the mosaics and frescoes in St. Sophia's Cathedral in Kiev