Cultural symbolism: Why heritage sites in Ukraine like Saint Sophia’s Cathedral remain a threat to Russia

More than 160 Ukrainian cultural sites have been damaged or destroyed since Russia invaded the country in February 2022, according to UNESCO.

The Ukrainian government says the number of damaged sites is much higher. Russia denies these accusations. Ukrainian officials accuse Russia of deliberately targeting cultural sites, half of which are churches, monasteries, prayer houses, synagogues and mosques. Such targeting would be a violation of international law.

As an academic who has spent more than 30 years studying Russian and Ukrainian religion and culture, I am deeply concerned about the cultural destruction of this war, which has already claimed thousands of lives and transformed more than 12 million Ukrainians as refugees.

An important monument under threat is Saint Sophia’s Cathedral in Kyiv. Built in the 11th century, the church is one of the seven Ukrainian World Heritage Sites recognized by the United Nations. It represents the common Orthodox Christian faith shared by many Russians and Ukrainians.

Hagia Sophia and the Byzantine Model

Saint Sophia Cathedral was built during the reign of Grand Prince Yaroslav the Wise, whose father, Volodymyr – also known as Vladimir – had adopted Orthodox Christianity in 988.

According to a legend in the “Primary Chronicle” of the early 12th century, Volodymyr chose Orthodoxy for the beauty of his worship services. The emissaries he sent to Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire, visited the famous Church of Holy Wisdom, the Hagia Sophia.

Built by Emperor Justinian in the 6th century, the Hagia Sophia is dedicated to Divine Wisdom, who is personified by a woman in the biblical “Book of Proverbs”. Convinced by the favorable report of his envoys, Volodymyr decides to be baptized and to convert his subjects.

After Volodymyr’s death, Yaroslav invited Byzantine architects and artists to build an impressive cathedral for Kyiv, much like the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. Yaroslav, who had waged a civil war to succeed his father, deliberately emulated the Byzantine capital to establish his legitimacy. Its new cathedral, Hagia Sophia, even takes its name from the imperial church of Constantinople.

Christian symbolism in the cathedral

With 13 cupolas and a central dome that rises 95 feet into the air, Hagia Sophia is an imposing structure that served as a testament to the power and piety of its ruler. Elaborate mosaics decorate the sanctuary and the dome. Portraits of Yaroslav and his family are prominently displayed in the cathedral’s princely gallery, where the ruler attended services.

A mosaic of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, stands in the apse above the altar. Raising her hands in prayer, Mary is framed by a Greek inscription from Psalm 46: “God is in her midst; She will not be moved.

Imagery and language are borrowed from Byzantium. Just as she was considered a powerful divine protector of Constantinople, Mary now protects Kyiv. The large central dome is adorned with a mosaic of an almighty image of Christ, known as “Christ Pantocrator”, who watches his followers from his throne.

Art historian Elena Boeck calls Hagia Sophia “the most ambitious Orthodox church built in the 11th century”.

Decline and restoration

Saint Sophia Cathedral was consecrated in 1049 and completed around 1062. As Kyiv’s power and importance declined, the church suffered from external attack and internal neglect.

In 1169, the northern prince Andrei Bogolubskii of Vladimir sacked Kyiv – an event that the head of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, Metropolitan Epifaniy, compared to the current Russian invasion. Mongol attacks in 1240, 1416 and 1482 further damaged the cathedral.

Restoration work in the 17th century in the Baroque style radically changed the external appearance of the cathedral. The exterior walls have been plastered and whitewashed. The church was bombed during the Russian Civil War in 1918. Under Soviet rule, communists looted its treasury and secularized the building, which became a museum. In the 1940s, the church again suffered German occupation.

Saint Sophia Cathedral is a monument of East Slavic cultural heritage shared by Russians and Ukrainians. Its extraordinary Byzantine mosaics and frescoes have survived nearly a millennium.

Today, as during the Second World War, Ukraine is invaded by a foreign army which threatens this heritage. Although Russia has assured the United Nations that its armed forces are taking “necessary precautions” to avoid damaging World Heritage sites, such as Hagia Sophia, the war is destructive and unpredictable. Whether St. Sophia Cathedral remained intact during this latest invasion remains an open question.

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