Continuing my series on Churches and Cathedrals Around the World, we spent a week in Ukraine, splitting our time between Kiev and Lviv. Ukraine is predominantly Eastern Orthodox – about two-thirds of the population. Only a tiny fraction of the remaining people are non-Christian, so it is no wonder that churches and cathedrals are everywhere in Ukraine. If you are used to Catholic cathedrals, the orthodox variety will come as a bit of a surprise. Everyone stands, so you will not find rows of pews. Rather than frescos and other western European art, you will find icons. There tends to be a lot more gold work and wooden carvings.
Kiev (or as the Ukrainians spell it: Kyiv) is the capital of Ukraine. One interesting observation is that you don’t need to walk far to find a cathedral, as they seem to be everywhere! By the end of the week, the kids were questioning why we wanted to go into another cathedral.
St. Michael’s Monastery
St. Michael’s Monastery Cathedral is beautiful, both inside and out.
Plus the kids enjoyed that there was a nearby playground with fun equipment and a cotton candy stand! After seeing the interior, we wandered the grounds a bit.
St. Andrew’s Church
Nearby, is St. Andrew’s Church. It is now a museum, but was under renovation while we were there, so we didn’t go in.
St. Sophia’s Cathedral
We were very intrigued by St. Sophia’s Cathedral. It was named for and resembles the Hagia Sofia in Istanbul.
Having been to both, I was a bit awed to see the similarities, particularly the mosaics in the interior. St. Sophia’s was smaller, but was in much better condition. The Hagia Sofia has tons of missing parts to the mosaics and paintings, plus it has been converted into a mosque and has muslim additions to the original design, so it was really interesting to extrapolate what the Hagia Sofia may have looked like when it was first built.
St. Volodymyr’s Cathedral
In St. Volodymyr’s Cathedral, there was a choral group singing, and the boys got a flavor of what an Ukrainian or Russian Orthodox church service may look like. Everyone was standing, the women wore head scarves, there were lots of candles, and the music was beautiful. If I wouldn’t have been so tired, or if there would have been seating, I would have been happy to stay a lot longer than we did.
Kyevo-Pecherska Lavra (Caves Monastary)
Kyevo-Pecherska Lavra, or the Caves Monastary, is usually very crowded on the weekends, so come on a weekday if you can. After being a bit overwhelmed by the size of the complex, we opted for a 2 hour tour. A bit expensive by Ukrainian standards, but we felt it was worth the money.
The Dormition Cathedral was originally built in the 11th century, had the gold decorations added during the Baroque period, was destroyed during WWII, but was rebuilt and consecrated just 18 years ago, so you can imagine that it was in amazing condition. The interior was very beautiful with tons of gleaming gold and nice paintings.
We were surprised to learn that Ukrainian Orthodox church services usually last 4 hours. According to our guide, they are often ran as a story, often times telling the story of Jesus’ birth to his death, or telling the story of creation to another point, or something else.
Everyone stands and can wander around the church with no expectation of needing to stay the entire 4 hours, so people tend to come and go, which makes it somewhat easier for a tourist to blend in. There is also no instrumental music, only vocal, so the cathedrals tend to be built with acoustics that work well with the human voice. Certain spots are better than others for the best results.
Here is an interesting article that explains the Orthodox services.
Women should be careful in their choice of clothing, as they are technically required to wear a knee length or longer skirt, and need to wear a head scarf inside all religious buildings. Depending on how strict the door guard is, you may or may not be able to get inside if you wear pants or fail on the other requirements.
Men may be bounced for either t-shirts or shorts. Opt to dress conservatively, and you shouldn’t have problems.
Make sure you don’t skip the “Nearer Caves,” which are basically the catacombs inside the Church of the Raising of the Cross. Before going into the caves, our guide had us buy some candles, then told us to hold them with a flat hand, palm up, gripped between the fingers so that any wax that fell would land on our hands. Yikes!
John got very excited and really wanted to hold the candles, but we were told that it was “forbidden” for children to do so. Good answer! I didn’t particularly want hot wax on my hand, but I could see the kids burning down the building or lighting someone’s hair on fire if they jumped when some of the wax fell on their skin.
Legend has it that some of the monks that were buried in these caves went through a natural, yet miraculous, mummification process. The bodies that were discovered perfectly preserved were declared saints, and now have homes in glass cases for everyone to look at. For the most part, all you see is the beautiful cloth covering them, but here and there you can see a hand or a foot peeking out.
One interesting moment was when another couple asked our guide if a certain body was the body of Ilya Muromets (it was, sort of). Our guide then told us how Ilya Muromets was a fairy tale that the Russians made up and used to control the people, etc. The mutterings from earlier turned into all out vocalization of his political views. The rest of our tour was mostly spent with our guide telling us what bad people the Russians were and all the things that the Russians have done to control the Ukrainians.
His commentary about the Russians reminded us a bit of our experience between the Israelites and Palestinians the day we went to Bethlehem. It seems that when two nations are at odds, many of the locals want to make sure their guests hear the “correct” side of the story.
We went into a few of the minor museums. There was a small armory, and an even smaller museum with some old books, and a museum on women’s clothing. The Microminiature Museum ended up being quite good! We were able to look through some microscopes and see the world smallest book, a very tiny sheet of music with over 600 notes, a chess board painted onto the head of a very small nail, a rose painted onto a strand of hair, and more. It was only one room, but all of us really enjoyed it.
After our tour ended, we continued back down to the caves to see if we missed anything, then followed a path that led to a sign with the word “Iconostasis” and an arrow into a building. We went down a super long passageway and came out by the “Further Caves.” Unfortunately we only found the prayer entrance, so we weren’t able to go inside since we didn’t look or sound like Ukrainian Orthodox pilgrims.
Pirogovo Open-Air Museum Church
On our last day in Kiev, we decided to visit the Pirogovo Open-Air Museum. The museum is quite big, and has little villages from different regions and time periods in Ukraine’s history. If you like looking back on history with a little nostalgia for the good old days, this is definitely a place for you. Come hungry, there is a great traditional Ukrainian food market!
Several of the buildings were a wooden churches. One in particular (not the one pictured), had a lot of unexpected gold work.
Lviv is known as the cultural capital of Ukraine, and while the city is on the small side, it still has tons of churches and cathedrals. Some are quite tiny and only take a few minutes to visit, where others could take a bit longer.
St. George’s Cathedral
Even though St. George’s Cathedral is Catholic, when we were able to witness part of a service, we found it to have the feel of an Eastern Orthodox church. The use of religious banners was quite prominent.
The Armenian Cathedral
The Armenian Cathedral was small, with a very old feel to it.
The Transfiguration church had very nice paintings on both the walls and ceilings. The icons were very pretty, as was the gold work.
The Dormition Church only permitted visitors into the chapel, where you could peek through a side door into the main sanctuary. It was nice, but there was a group of women that parked themselves in front of the door and had a long, noisy conversation with their backs to the main sanctuary. For whatever reason, they wouldn’t get out of the way so that we could get a good look. Sigh.
John the Baptist Church
On the way to Castle Hill, you can stop by the John the Baptist Church.