Ancient Autographs: Graffiti of Kiev’s St. Sophia Cathedral

Ancient Autographs: Graffiti of Kiev’s St. Sophia Cathedral

One of Kiev, Ukraine’s most illustrious features is St. Sophia Cathedral, which was the grandest church in the medieval federation of Kievan Rus, and is today a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Built in the early 11th century by Kiev’s first Grand Princes, Volodymr the Great and Yaroslav the Wise, St. Sophia’s imposing asymmetrical green domes, rising over white plastered walls, are tipped with gold, and golden scales cover its 94-foot central dome.

MIR Kiev Office Director Luba Rudenko enjoying the sunshine in the church courtyard Photo: Luba Rudenko

MIR Kiev Office Director Luba Rudenko enjoying the sunshine in the church courtyard
Photo: Luba Rudenko

Apparently, though, some early Kievans weren’t as impressed as they should have been with this magnificence. Researchers with magnifying glasses have over time discovered some 300 graffiti scratched into the walls of the cathedral; most of them are at eye-level, but a few of the graffiti artists needed ladders or scaffolds to make their marks.

Painted eggs in front of a church in Kiev, UkrainePhoto: Luba Rudenko

Painted eggs in front of St. Sophia Cathedral in Kiev, Ukraine
Photo: Luba Rudenko

A Royal CathedralSt. Sophia adjoined Yaroslav’s palace, and its importance can’t be overstated. It hosted not only worship services, but coronations, treaty negotiations, and diplomatic meetings – any conclave that required pomp and solemnity. The surrounding monastic buildings housed Kiev’s first library and school, and supported the writers of the 12th century Primary Chronicle, the first and most significant history of Kievan Rus.

A splendid aerial view of St. Sophia Cathedral

A splendid aerial view of St. Sophia Cathedral

Memorable MosaicsInside, St. Sophia is faced in frescoes from several eras, as well as still-brilliant mosaics from the 11th century. The mosaics, unlike the frescoes, have survived the centuries with their radiance intact. Assembled from tiny cubes of glass colored with gold leaf and ground minerals in some 180 hues, the mosaics are arranged from floor to ceiling in order of the significance of the saints they portray. The most famous is the praying Madonna (the Oranta) above the altar with her arms uplifted, dressed in a mantle of cobalt blue.

Also featured in the cathedral is a painted egg mosaic of St. Sophia Photo: Joanna Millick

Also featured in the cathedral is a modern painted egg mosaic of St. Sophia
Photo: Joanna Millick

Formal FrescoesMany of the fading 11th century frescoes, painted by at least 30 Byzantine masters, have been uncovered during restoration work. Over the church’s thousand-year life, the original frescoes were damaged, plastered, painted over and nearly erased, but in the 20th century, painstaking restoration has revealed nearly 3,000 square feet of the earliest frescoes. It’s a staggering experience to contemplate these paintings, and imagine the artists measuring, planning, choosing their colors and beginning their solemn work.

Not-So-Formal FrescoesOddly enough, not all of the frescoes are sacred. In the stairwells, Byzantine celebrations with mimes, jugglers, musicians, and animals deck the walls. In several places, Yaroslav’s family members are represented.

Signs of the TimesOdder still are the graffiti scratched into the frescoes. Some record transactions, deaths and marriages, while others request help from the saints. At least one calls down a curse on the head of another 11th century Kievan. According to researcher Vyacheslav Kornienko, it reads, “Kozma is a thief. Stolen meat. May your legs twist. Amen.”

Apparently even the royals were not immune from the temptation to scratch their names into the church walls. Prince Yaroslav, and his sons Sviatoslav and Vsevolod left their autographs here. But most of the inscriptions were initiated by ordinary Kievans in the old Rus script, and show that the townspeople had a high degree of literacy.

Thousand-Year-Old NewsOne of the most intriguing finds is the possible signature of a medieval artist, which may show that the cathedral was built and frescoed earlier than previously assumed. The graffito was painted on the fresco of St. Basil 16 feet from the floor, and reads, “Lord, help your servant Chiriac.” Experts say it has been there since 1022, and have proposed that the cathedral was begun between 1011 and 1017, rather than the 1037 date that had been agreed upon by historians.

The old cathedral continues to provide new information on the life and times of the medieval Kievan Rus.

St. Sophia Cathedral bell tower Photo: Douglas Grimes

St. Sophia Cathedral bell tower
Photo: Douglas Grimes

Travel with MIR to Ukraine

MIR has 30 years of travel experience in Ukraine and has an affiliate office in Kiev. We have a roster of contacts that can take you to places that you didn’t even know you wanted to go. Our full service, dedication, commitment to quality, and destination expertise have twice earned us a place on National Geographic Adventure’s list of “Best Adventure Travel Companies on Earth.” 

Experience Ukraine on MIR’s small group tour, Belarus, Ukraine & Moldova, or on the private itinerary, Essential Ukraine. You can also create your own Ukrainian exploration with the help of our custom and private specialists. 

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Top Photo: St. Sophia Cathedral shines on a beautiful day. Photo: Jessica Clark

PUBLISHED: February 16, 2017

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