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St. Sophia


It was also in the Kremlin that the first church was built to replace the temple. It was made of wood and built in 989 by the first bishop of Novgorod, Ioakim. We do not know if this one was the same little wooden church of Saint Sophia, that burned to the ground in 1045. To replace it Novgorod's Prince Vladimir, son of Yaroslav the Wise, in the same year laid down the foundations for a new stone cathedral of the same name which was completed in 1052, or just fifteen years after Kiev received its Saint Sophia. It is not surprising that they originally looked alike and that they received the same name. Most probably, the builders of both cathedrals belonged to the same school, if they were not the same people, also a possibility, though some art students prefer to conclude that Novgorodians learned their architectural knowledge and iconography not from Constantinople but from the Armenians and Georgians. Their speculation was based on a legend that says that the first Christian preachers who came to Novgorod had "Never seen Kiev nor Constantinople," and consequently, must be Christians from the Caucasus region. Similar explanation was given for the early Novgorodian architecture's differences from the Byzantine style. However, more reliable sources confirm that it was not before the beginning of the 12th century that Novgorod started to ignore Byzantine forms and to create its own. By that time its masters had learned stone building techniques and successfully adapted them to the construction methods of their native wooden churches. They also had to take into consideration the specific climatic conditions of northern Russia, which differ so much from the snow-free winters in Constantinople. Because of severe colds and heavy snows, the Novgorodians had to make the roofs of their churches steep and the windows narrow. The large and rather flat Byzantine domes had to be changed so that they could resist the burdens of the snow more easily. See photos in our section of Novgorod - St Sophia..

Through centuries Russian builders contributed to the formation of what was to become a typically Russian silhouette of their churches. Their imagination produced a great variety of tent-shaped or bulbous forms that made roofs the most decorative part in their architecture. This was further enriched with decorative details that they borrowed from the west when Novgorod established closer trade relations with her European neighbors. Central and northern Europe was much closer to Novgorod than the distant Byzantium and the Near East and this geographical presence could not but reflect on Novgorod's architecture. The product of their ambition became known as the Novgorod School of Art. The early known major contributors to its architecture were the "Posadnik" (mayor) of Novgorod, Miloneg, and masters Korov Yakovlevich and Peter, whose family name was unknown. The churches they built were smaller and simpler than those in Kiev and they were closer to the ground and more heavy-set. Outside they were barely decorated. Their cupolas resembled ancient Russian princely helmets, as we can see from old icons and frescoes, and this detail became very distinctive of the Novgorod churches. Novgorod was not overrun nor destroyed by the Tatars and the cultural life of the city and its region continued to develop along traditional lines. It lost its prestige when Moscow emerged as the center of the newly formed all-Russian national government. But before this happened Novgorod' masters gained experience and achieved a specific style in church architecture characterized, in addition by a single cupola, only one apse for the altar (often square), very few windows, semi-circular vaults, fascicular pilasters and by certain other minor details. Some Soviet architects considered that this style was best demonstrated in the small Spaso-Preobrazhensky cathedral built in 1374.(?)

The Cathedral of Saint Sophia in Novgorod, though enlarged in the 12th century and restored several times since, has preserved most of its original structures. Here again we see that the Cathedral was built in the form of a Greek cross with six piers of cruciform section. At that time the Cathedral had a nave and four aisles; the two outside aisles did not end in apses. Then early in the 12th century two additional aisles were added, one on each side. At this time, the cathedral received on the western side, a parvis (Papert) and a staircase tower leading to the gallery on the second floor. The central part of the gallery faces the altar and was used by the prince and his family, often accompanied by domestic and foreign dignitaries attending the church service. The rear of the gallery had rooms that housed the library of the cathedral, and it was here that the Novgorod's Chronicle (9th - 16th centuries) was written and kept. We have no information if the gallery was also directly connected to the palace, a feature that existed in several other locations. The cathedral has six cupolas instead of the usual five. Four smaller cupolas surround the large central one and on the south-western side is the sixth on the top of the staircase tower. This disposition gave the edifice an interesting and asymmetrical appearance. The central cupola preserved the form of an ancient Russian helmet and is the only one that is gilded. It carries a large cross with a dove on it. The legend says that the dove was there to protect Novgorod and its people, who believed that its disappearance from the cross would bring destruction to the city and to themselves. All other cupolas received a slightly onion shaped form when they were restored in the 16th century. Unevenly cut lime stone, which was found north of Novgorod, was used for the construction of the cathedral. Nature lightly colored it, and its pastel shades of pale grey, blue, yellow, green and purple must have noticeably increased the beauty and softened the stern look of this very little decorated, almost windowless, austere, but also original and remarkable Russian architectural monument of the 11th century. There are only two others in Russia which date from the same period which can match its magnitude: The cathedrals of Saint Sophia in Kiev and in Polotsk. This is the legacy of churches named after Saint Sophia.

The interior of Novgorod's Saint Sophia and the decoration of its walls underwent several changes and restorations during its long history. At the end of the 17th century the floor of the cathedral was raised and its windows enlarged. The floor was again raised in the eighteen thirties making it over four feet higher than the original. At this time its roof was also changed to four-sloped. Despite this, the cathedral preserved most of its original silhouette. From the Chronicle we learn that the walls of the cathedral remained bare for about half a century and that the first frescoes were painted in the beginning of the 12th century. No reason was given for this unusual delay. Then we see that the job was finally completed and the walls entirely covered with frescoes only by the middle of the 12th century. Unfortunately only few fragments still remain. The frescoes were repainted several times, but in most cases the work was done by repeating the same lines and colors thus preserving the same subject. Important frescoes of the early 12th century were discovered when the cathedral was renovated for the final time at the end of the last century. Of the greatest value was the image of the Christ Pantocrator and beneath him the figures of four archangels, all in the central cupola, and further beneath them in the drum eight prophets, one on each space between the windows.

In 1941 during the last war, the central cupola was hit twice by a shell, seriously damaging the image of the Christ. What was left of it was completely destroyed later because nobody took care to repair the holes and protect the remaining frescoes from being washed off by rain. When the Soviet archaeologists and restorers came to the cathedral in 1945, they found nothing left of the Pantocrator; and only two archangels and three prophets remained well preserved. The monumental style and the classical simplicity characterize the way the prophets were painted and testify that the work was done by Byzantine iconographers. Of interest are also fragments of the frescoes in the so-called Martiriev Parvis on the south side, which were discovered in 1947 and cleaned in 1955. Here we recognize the Byzantine Emperor Constantine and his mother Helen in their regal garments, then the composition "Deisus" with the Savior, his mother and saints on his sides. Both are a fine work of the Byzantine art school of the early 12th century. Most other frescoes, or better to say their small fragments, belong to the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries. Many of them were retouched or entirely repainted in the beginning and at the end of the 19th century, when the cathedral underwent partial restoration. The cathedral has two very old portals: The so-called "Sigtuna" portal at the main entrance on the west side, and the "Korsun" portal at the entrance to the chapel of the Nativity of the Virgin located on the south-eat side. The name of the first portal comes from the ancient Swedish capital Sigtuna from where, according to the legend, the army of Novgorod took the portal after defeating the Swedes. The portal consists of two massive oak leaves, each adorned with 13 high-relief bronze panels, laminated with gold and silver. They relate events from the Bible. Most Soviet historians agree that the portal was made by Magdeburg artists of whom a certain Requinus, who lived in the middle of the 12th century, appears to be the most important. The Korsun portal most probably dates from the 11thcentury. It was also made of bronze panels which show only crosses decorated with floral ornamentation. Similar ornamentation is engraved on the bronze frames around the panels. The portal is most probably the work of Byzantine artists and the legend says that it has been brought to Novgorod from Korsun by the Grand Duke Vladimir after he had been converted there to the Christian faith. The cathedral contained many old icons (there were about seventy in its iconostasis alone) and remarkable old church decorative objects, some of great artistic value. Russian princes and tsars were indeed generous in their gifts to churches, and the Cathedral of Novgorod was often favored. The existing archbishop's throne dates from 1560.When Ivan the Terrible learned that there was not one in the cathedral for the tsar, he ordered that a throne for him be made and installed during his expedition to Novgorod in 1572. Both thrones are fine pieces of wood-carving. In 1600 Boris Godunov donated to the cathedral an enormous church chandelier of over four tons with a large double-headed eagle on the top. These are just a few of hundreds of objects that lavishly decorated the interior of the cathedral.

The services held in it on important holidays must have been a fascinating experience. The last was celebrated in 1929, after which by order of the Soviet government, all its valuables were confiscated and the cathedral was declared a historical museum. Many valuable items were removed and the cathedral was locked up and left to deteriorate. The war and the German army did further damage and pillaging. They even took the gilded roof of the main cupola. After the war Soviet authorities restored the building and the roof, and archaeologists often came to do more excavation. They went through everything, including the tombs of the founder of the cathedral, Prince Vladimir Yaroslavich, (1020-1052) of Prince Mstislav Rostislavich the Brave ((? - 1180) and of some fifty tombs of Novgorod's bishops and archbishops who were all buried there. Today the cathedral is empty. Its silence is interrupted from time to time by groups of visitors who are brought to see this ancient monument and hear the new anti-Christian doctrine of the Soviet government.




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