Sacred Spaces: The Cathedral of St. Sophia

This week, we’re continuing our Sacred Spaces blog series with a visit to Novgorod and the St. Sophia Cathedral.  Don’t forget to follow the links below and catch up on this blog series!

The Divine Wisdom

(Photo via

One of the oldest stone structures in northern Russia, the Cathedral of St. Sophia is the crown jewel of Novgorod.  It sits on the west bank of the Volkhov River.  The cathedral was built between 1045-1050 by Prince Vladimir, son of Yarslav the Wise (whose had commissioned his own St. Sophia Cathedral in Kiev).

“Novgorod city, officially referred to as “Novgorod the Great” (Veliky Novgorod), since 1999, is a magnificent repository of medieval Russian art, with more than 50 churches and monasteries extending from the 11th through the 17th centuries. In 1992, this wealth of historic monuments, centred on the Novgorod Kremlin, was included in the UNESCO World Heritage list.”

In addition to its imposing size and structure, the Cathedral was noted for its use of masonry, a rare construction material in Novgorod at the time.  “[A] cathedral of such size and complexity could only have been built under the supervision of experienced builders.”  Also noteworthy are the Byzantine-inspired features – St. Sophia Cathedral was the first Slavic church to utilize this style.

Inside the Cathedral, “[t]he north and south galleries contain chapels at ground level, and the west gallery includes a round stair tower that leads to the upper gallery levels, including the choir gallery in the main structure.”

Soon after the Cathedral was completed, the interior was simply decorated with stucco.  Later, master artists from Greece, the Balkans, and Constantinople were brought in to decorate the Cathedral with beautiful frescoes and icons.  Unfortunately, many of these original paintings have disappeared under renovations or damaged by fires.  Some of the work, such as full-size depictions of Emperor Constantine and Elena, have been uncovered, but the vast majority of this exemplary artwork has been lost forever.

Also “lost,” in its own way, is the largest of five bells from the Cathedral’s stone bell-tower (built in the 15th century).  This bell stands on the grown near the tower, unable to be used.  The “ears” of the bell (the bits at the top of a bell from which it hangs) were removed by Ivan III as a warning to the people of Novgorod during his conquest in 1570.  The bell had been rung to warn the city of his approach, but now remains silent and unusable after Ivan’s “amputation.”

Main photo by User№101, via Wikimedia Commons
St. Sophia Cathedral –
St. Sophia’s Divine Wisdom Over Novgorod –
Cathedral of St. Sophia, Novgorod –
St. Sophia Cathedral (Novgorod) –
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