A visit to St. Sophia Cathedral is a highlight of any holiday in Kyiv. For us, it was one of the most vivid memories of our time in the capital. Based on research of wall inscriptions within the cathedral, historians believe the foundation was laid in about 1011 by Volodymyr the Great. A competing narrative suggests it was founded by Volodymyr’s son, Yaroslav the Wise, but the former is accepted by the Ukrainian government and UNESCO. The 1000th anniversary of the cathedral’s founding was celebrated in 2011. The church was constructed of mixed brick and stone masonry using techniques developed by the top masters of the Byzantine Empire. The current exterior is plastered with some sections purposely left bare for historical reference. The cross-domed construction consists of 13 domes, the caps of which gleam during the day and are visible at various points throughout the city. The domes represent Christ and the 12 apostles and the arches are symbolic of the heavenly gates through which the people enter the sacred. Named after the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, the cathedral interior is adorned with detailed, colorful mosaics and frescoes of the gospel story and of the period. The oldest of which also date to the 11th century.


The mosaics are arranged in a strict hierarchy of heavenly characters. The compositions within each image pop out in rich colors overlaid on a glowing gold background meant to catch the eye and inspire reverence. At the center of the cathedral, what we might consider the altar, the mosaic of Christ Pantocrator dominates, leaving no doubt as to who is meant to be the center of attention.

High Altar

Many of the frescoes also date to the 11th century with extensive restoration work done in the 19th century during the reconstruction of the church. While the main subject matter of the work is Christian, a significant portion deals with secular topics such as depictions of the greatness of Rus, its recognition by the world, and the role of Kyiv in Europe.


Since its inception, the cathedral has served as a tomb for many dukes and clergy. A number of notable individuals are buried here; the most famous being Yaroslav the Wise and Volodymyr Monomakh, the latter of which is considered to be a saint in the Eastern Orthodox Church. The separate and equally ornate Bell Tower was constructed in 1699. Its three-tiered construction was increased by another level in 1851 to 1852 and crowned with a wooden pear-shaped dome overlaid with gilded copper sheets. The ornamental stucco facades done in a bas-relief style have mostly been preserved.

Bell Tower

Throughout its history, the cathedral has managed to survive numerous enemy invasions, looting, partial destruction, some questionable reconstruction, and even abandonment. As recent as the 20th century, the Bolsheviks wanted to demolish the cathedral as they had done to churches throughout the Soviet Republic. Fortunately, they decided against it. Instead, the cathedral and surrounding area was declared a State Historical and Architectural Reserve. All items of value including gold and silver was confiscated. The gilded metal screen, the iconostasis, was dismantled, the gold stripped and the remainder burned. During the second world war, as the Nazis approached Kyiv, the Red Army mined the cathedral intending on blowing it up upon their retreat from the city. But the destruction never happened. The Germans looted the Architectural and Historical Museum taking some of the priceless icons and archives back to Germany. If you were to tour the cathedral today, it would take some effort to find reminders of its tumultuous history. The buildings again shine bright and have been polished up for the many tourists that visit on a daily basis. It is a moving experience to visit. The modest admission price includes many of the outbuildings constructed throughout the millennium, some of which we have yet to see. We spent most of our time in the cathedral ogling the mosaics and frescoes and absorbing the imagery and history surrounding us. It was a spiritual experience, perhaps even mystical, brought on by the lingering smell of burning candles and incense, along with the rich and extensive history on full display. We did not want to leave. Featured Image: Rbrechko, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons This file has been extracted from another file: 80-391-0151 Kyiv St.Sophia’s Cathedral RB 18 2.jpg All other photos copyright 2022 by Rick and Bonnie Martens