Cathedral of St. Sophia, Novgorod

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The oldest and most imposing surviving monument in Novgorod is the Cathedral of St. Sophia (also known in the Orthodox tradition as "Divine Wisdom"),

built between 1045 and 1050 and located in the detinets (citadel) on the west bank of the Volkhov River. The cathedral was commissioned by the prince of Novgorod, Vladimir Yaroslavich; by his father, Yaroslav the Wise (whose own Sophia Cathedral in Kiev was entering its final construction phase); and by Archbishop Luka of Novgorod. Because masonry construction was largely unknown in Novgorod before the middle of the eleventh century, a cathedral of such size and complexity could only have been constructed under the supervision of imported master builders, presumably from Kiev. The basic material for the construction of the walls and the piers, however, was obtained in the Novgorod: fieldstone and undressed blocks of limestone set in a mortar of crushed brick and lime.

The cathedral has five aisles for the main structure, with enclosed galleries attached to the north, west, and south facades. The Novgorod Sophia is smaller than its Kievan counterpart, yet the two cathedrals are of approximately the same height. Therein lies an explanation for the much sharper sense of vertical development in the Novgorod cathedral.

Novgorod chronicles indicate that the interior was painted with frescoes over a period of several decades. Fragments of eleventhcentury work have been uncovered, as well as early twelfthcentury frescoes. Most of the original painting of the interior has long since vanished under centuries of renovations. Although small areas of the interior had mosaic decorations, there were no mosaics comparable to those in Kiev. The exterior facade above the west portal also displays frescoes, but the most distinctive element is the portal itself, with its magnificent bronze Sigtuna Doors, produced in Magdeburg in the 1050s and taken from the Varangian fortress of Sigtuna by Novgorod raiders in 1117.

See also: architecture; cathedral of st. sophia, kiev; novgorod the great; vladimir yaroslavich; yaroslav vladimirovich


Brumfield, William Craft. (1993). A History of Russian Architecture. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Rappoport, Alexander P. (1995). Building the Churches of Kievan Russia. Brookfield, VT: Variorum.

William Craft Brumfield

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Cathedral of St. Sophia, Novgorod

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