Exploring the ancient graffiti of St. Sophia Cathedral in Kyiv (photo report)

Sophia

St. Sophia of Kyiv is one of the most important Christian shrines in Eastern Europe, the historical centre of the Kyiv metropolitanate. The whole ensemble is inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Photo: Serhii Nuzhnenko, Radio Svoboda.org (RFE/RL) 

Culture, History

Translated by: Christine Chraibi

On May 28, 2021, St. Sophia Cathedral hosted the presentation of a multi-volume scholarly publication – Corpus of Graffiti of St. Sophia of Kyiv, the tenth part, and last volume of which was published in 2020.  Historians, experts and scholars have found over 7,000 graffiti from the 11th to early 18th centuries in the dark hidden passages of St. Sophia Cathedral.
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Corpus of Graffiti of St. Sophia of Kyiv – an exhaustive 15-year research project published in 12 volumes. Photo: Serhii Nuzhnenko, Radio Svoboda.org (RFE/RL)

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Photo: Serhii Nuzhnenko, Radio Svoboda.org (RFE/RL)

During the presentation, visitors were allowed to look through the volumes and view the results of 15 years of research work, and talk directly with the authors and other project members. Historian Vyacheslav Kornienko then conducted a tour of the shrine’s nooks and crannies where he showed his awed guests the secret inscriptions on the walls of the millennial church.

Some of the inscriptions are inscribed in the official written Church Slavonic language of that time. However, it is interesting to note that the inhabitants of Kyivan Rus spoke a colloquial language close to modern Ukrainian and used many common and recognizable words to carve out their graffiti. More details here.

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St. Sophia Cathedral in Kyiv – a masterpiece of Ukrainian art and architecture from the princely era of Kyivan Rus. Photo: Serhii Nuzhnenko, Radio Svoboda.org (RFE/RL)

Editor’s Note

Saint Sophia Cathedral in central Kyiv is a magnificent monument of Ukrainian art and architecture. It was built in the Byzantine style at the height of Kyivan Rus (between 1037 and 1044), and was significantly transformed during the Baroque period. The cathedral was founded by Grand Prince of Kyiv Yaroslav the Wise of Kyiv, often called the “Father of Europe”, whose many sons and daughters wed into the royal houses of Europe.

Key events in Ukrainian religious, political, and cultural life have taken place in and around the cathedral. The first library in Ukraine was founded here by Yaroslav the Wise. The Grand Prince was buried in the cathedral (his sarchopagus remains), as were other grand princes and metropolitans. The cathedral also witnessed coronations, receptions of foreign ambassadors, royal and city council meetings, and the proclamation or signing of of many treaties, agreements and universals.

Sophia

“A mother unwillingly offends her child. The Lord does not like this, so He burdens her with troubles. A person whose mind has departed from the correct order of things shall be a container for all sins.” Inscription from the late 11th – early 12th century (translated from Old Church Slavonic). Photo: Serhii Nuzhnenko, Radio Svoboda.org (RFE/RL)

Sophia

“A mother unwillingly offends her child. The Lord does not like this, so He burdens her with troubles. A person whose mind has departed from the correct order of things shall be a container for all sins.” Inscription from the late 11th – early 12th century (translated from Old Church Slavonic). Photo: Serhii Nuzhnenko, Radio Svoboda.org (RFE/RL)

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The inhabitants of Kyivan Rus spoke a colloquial language close to modern Ukrainian and used many common and recognizable words to carve out their graffiti. Photo: Serhii Nuzhnenko, Radio Svoboda.org (RFE/RL).

Sophia

More than 7,000 graffiti from the 11th to early 18th centuries were found in the dark hidden passages of St. Sophia Cathedral. Photo: Serhii Nuzhnenko, Radio Svoboda.org (RFE/RL)

Sophia

More than 7,000 graffiti from the 11th to early 18th centuries were found in the dark hidden passages of St. Sophia Cathedral. Photo: Serhii Nuzhnenko, Radio Svoboda.org (RFE/RL)

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“Bohdan Kam… kyi, 1625”. This was the first graffiti deciphered by the research team… and stimulated further exploration and study. Photo: Serhii Nuzhnenko, Radio Svoboda.org (RFE/RL)

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Historian Vyacheslav Kornienko during the tour. Photo: Serhii Nuzhnenko, Radio Svoboda.org (RFE/RL)

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In the Middle Ages, images and drawings were almost never signed, but scholars discovered an interesting graffiti signed by the author. There is a “drawing of a duck” and above it, there is an inscription “psakh Petro” – meaning “written by Petro” – and the year “1076”. According to scholars, the letter “O” in the inscription is inherent in the Ukrainian language. Photo: Serhii Nuzhnenko, Radio Svoboda.org (RFE/RL)

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“Drawing of a hare”. In Christianity, the hare was a symbolic animal. In the Middle Ages, hares were compared to Christians who found salvation from earthly worries in the church. An unknown artist drew this hare, but then decided more was needed and signed as “Hezekiah”, probably in reference to the frescoes depicting Hezekiah, the King of Judah. Photo: Serhii Nuzhnenko, Radio Svoboda.org (RFE/RL)

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“Hryhoriy Didovych was here, to worship and bow before St. Sophia!” Hryhoriy Didovych Trypolsky was a student of the Lavra School, a famous figure of the 16th century. Photo: Serhii Nuzhnenko, Radio Svoboda.org (RFE/RL)

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Graffiti written by two brothers who visited St. Sophia in 1614. “Ivan Stotsky and Balthazar Stotsky, 1614”. Photo: Serhii Nuzhnenko, Radio Svoboda.org (RFE/RL)

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“Prayer to St. Menas”. Photo: Serhii Nuzhnenko, Radio Svoboda.org (RFE/RL)

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“You, sinner Yakiv, bore false witness against Anna during the divorce proceedings in court. May the Lord deliver all sinners from torment!” The graffiti artist obviously knew that the divorce was unfair.
This inscription was read by other people, who later added “Oy” above the words “sinner” and “Yakiv”. If we draw an analogy with the present, the term “Oy” could be translated as today’s frowning smiley. Photo: Serhii Nuzhnenko, Radio Svoboda.org (RFE/RL)

Translated by: Christine Chraibi

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