St. Sophia of Kyiv – an outstanding monument of Kyivan Rus (11th century). One of the most important Christian shrines in Eastern Europe, historic centre of the Kyiv Metropolitanate. The religious complex is inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List
Article by: Halyna Tereshchuk
The authors, art historians Andriy Komarnytsky and Bohdan Ziatyk, reflect on the sacred heritage of Princely Ukraine-Rus, dispelling certain stereotypes and myths developed by Russia and the USSR over the years.
The icon of the Annunciation of Korsun, which was re-named the Annunciation of Ustyug in Russia, is an ancient pre-Mongolian icon from the Kyivan Rus era. Different sources say it was created around 1022 in either Kyiv or Korsun (modern Ukrainian: Khersones). The icon was taken to Moscow by Ivan the Terrible (Ivan IV Grozny) in the 16th century; today, it is exhibited in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.
One of the most sacred relics of the Russian Church – the icon of Our Lady of Vladimir – is in fact the icon of Our Lady of Tenderness of Vyshhorod*, which was one of the most important Ukrainian relics until 1155. People from all over Kyivan Rus came to worship the Virgin Mary of Vyshhorod, well known for its miraculous power. Theotokos or Mother of God are most often used as the terms for an Eastern icon, or type of icon, of the Mother with Child.
(*The Greek Patriarch of Constantinople sent the icon of Our Lady of Tenderness of Vyshhorod as a gift to Grand Prince Yuriy Dolhoruky of Kyiv. In 1157, Yuriy’s son, Andriy Boholiubsky, Grand Prince of Vladimir-Suzdal, sacked Kyiv, devastating it as never before, plundering the city and stealing much of its religious artwork, which included the Byzantine Mother of God icon. The icon is generally considered to be one of the most cherished symbols in Russian history and closely connected to Russian national consciousness. Its transfer from Kyiv to Vladimir was used by Boholiubsky to legitimize Vladimir’s claim as the new centre of power in Kyivan Rus-Ed.)
To date, Russia presents the history of sacred Ukrainian relics and treasures as its own and has continuously re-written their history to suit its own historical narrative.
The grand princes, who looted and tried to destroy Kyiv over so many years, understood that the renowned relics of Kyivan Rus could strengthen their power, say the authors of the Sacred Relics of Princely Ukraine.
In the Soviet era, almost all the revered icons of Kyiv were transferred to the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, including the Mother of God icon. In 1999, the icon was entrusted to the Russian Orthodox church.
Art historians Andriy Komarnytsky and Bohdan Ziatyk describe dozens of sacred relics of Princely Ukraine-Rus, which were taken illegally from Ukraine to Russia. Most of them were stolen by Andriy Boholiubsky, who was one of the princes that plundered and destroyed Kyiv, illegally exporting precious Ukrainian relics to Russia. Andriy Komarnytsky explains:
“Boholiubsky destroyed Kyiv and everything that was ever sacred and holy in Kyivan Rus.” wrote Ukrainian historian Mykola Kostomarov.
In 1157, Boholiubsky steals the icon of Our Lady of Vyshhorod. He organizes a coalition of grand princes against Kyiv and sacks and loots the capital of Rus; these tragic events are recorded in all the ancient chronicles. Some of the relics are exported north. The destruction is terrible; nobody had ever ventured to pillage and destroy the city to such an extent. Boholiubsky was a northern grand prince, an early representative of the later Grand Duchy of Muscovy, and a ruthless ruler that carried off many important relics and artifacts. The pillage of Ukraine began during his reign.
Most of these priceless treasures were exported illegally in the 13th century, such as the remains of Prince Volodymyr the Great and his grandmother Princess Olha, the golden belt of Simon the Varangian and relics of different saints. In 1940, an extremely valuable fragment of a mural – Eyes of an Unknown Saint from the ruined Church of the Tithes (Desiatynna Church) – were stolen from St. Sophia Cathedral in Kyiv.”
Some of the first holy treasures of Princely Ukraine mentioned in the Primary Chronicles of Ancient Rus are relics, namely the head, of St. Clement*, the fourth pope of Rome.
(According to later Christian writings, St. Clement died in exile during the reign of Emperor Trajan, who purportedly banished him to Chersonesus, Crimea and had him killed – tied to an anchor and thrown into the sea – in retaliation for evangelizing the local population.
About 868, St. Cyril (of Cyril and Methodius fame), on the way to evangelize the Khazars, discovered some bones and an anchor in Crimea. These were believed to be the relics of St. Clement. They were carried by St. Cyril to Rome, and deposited by Pope Adrian II with those of St. Ignatius of Antioch in the high altar of the Basilica di San Clemente. The remaining relics of St. Clement were taken to Kyiv-Ed.)
There are historical facts confirming that the remaining relics of St. Clement were first stored in the Church of the Tithes in Kyiv. The authors describe these relics in detail, relying on archival materials. Other relics of Saint Clement, including his head, are claimed by the Kyiv Monastery of the Caves (Kyiv Pechersk-Lavra).
Among the icons that were stolen from Ukraine, there were many from Chernihiv, Halych, Pereyaslav, etc. Such ancient Ukrainian treasures were stored first in the Assumption Cathedral of the Moscow Kremlin, then in the Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.
The removal and destruction of sacred relics and ancient treasures of Ancient Rus helps us understand how, over the centuries, the Russian empire, followed by the Soviet regime, sought to falsify Ukrainian history and culture and build their own historical and cultural narrative, explains Bohdan Ziatyk:
“We tried to cover the most valuable sacred treasures. However, during our research, we encountered more unanswered questions about certain missing relics. For example, where is Our Lady of Monomakh today?
Our Lady of Polissya is part of a private collection belonging to Ihor Hryniv (former MP). Why is such a sacred treasure in a private collection? The miracle-working icon of St. Nicholas Mokry, one of the oldest relics of Kyivan Rus, is somewhere in the United States, and we have only a black and white picture. What about the miracle-working icon of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary from Kyiv Pechersk-Lavra? Has it been preserved? If so, where is it? In the book, we re-named all the sacred relics that Soviet and Russian historians have branded as their own. Ukraine is not just 28 years old! Our history as a state began with Kyivan Rus, with the adoption of Christianity in 988, that is, 1031 years ago! We should talk more and inform more about these ancient Ukrainian treasures, because Russian propaganda continues spreading its age-old historical narrative.”
Designed for English-speaking readers
The book is written in Ukrainian and English to convey deeper information about Ukrainian sacred relics of Princely Ukraine to western readers, so that they can get acquainted with the original and unique iconography of ancient Kyiv, featuring golden, light-coloured images of Our Lord the Saviour, angels, and the Mother of God, who is often identified with Sophia, the Wisdom of God, according to the Kyiv tradition.
The authors point out that, when Christian traditions were being formed in Kyivan Rus, an important role was played by the Byzantine East, the Catholic West and pagan elements, which continued to coexist with Christianity.
“It is very unfortunate that many priceless Ukrainian treasures, relics of saints, remains of princes, miniatures and manuscripts, were stolen and exported illegally to Russia. We must declare our cultural heritage, because we’re losing on the cultural front.” says Bohdan Ziatyk.
The book illustrates the great Christian tradition of Ancient Rus, and readers can learn more about 11th century Ukrainian culture through the history of the Desiatynna Church, the Assumption Cathedral of the Kyiv Pechersk-Lavra, St. Sophia Cathedral, as well as their architecture and ornamentation.
Sacred Relics of Princely Ukraine is divided into several chapters: First Churches of Kyiv: national shrines, Miniatures of Princely Kyiv and the Kingdom of Galicia and Volhynia, Prestigious Icons of Ukraine-Rus: sacred object and spiritual legacy.
Andriy Komarnytsky and Bohdan Ziatyk have systematized and interpreted only part of the large stratum of Ukrainian culture of Princely Ukraine. The main purpose of the book, the authors say, is to help Ukrainians understand their history. Moreover, this is a small victory on the cultural front, which still unites the Ukrainian Church on the basis of common values propagated by Ancient Kyiv.