St. Sophia's Cathedral



  1. І. І. Каліноўскі, "Полацк і яго ваколіцы"

second half of XI cent.

translated by the site's team

During the rule of prince Usiaslau in the capital of thePolatsk principality the graceful St. Sophia's Cathedral was built on the place of the future city-fort on the Zamkavaja hill. It was the first stone building in Belarus. The stone-architecture record of Belarus began from the building of this temple. Nowadays St. Sophia's Cathedral is the  visit-card of Polatsk. The ancient temple awakes memories about the past, its history has become the record of Polatsk. The temple's story began in the far XI cent. and continues nowadays, getting the new meanings and spiritual value. This is a monument of the XI-XVIII cent. Uladzimir Karatkievich, a famous Belarusian poet and writer asked a poetic question in his poem "Belaruskaja piesnia": "Where is my Place?". And answered himself: "At the place where Sophia sails above the Dvina, like a caravel".

The Greek word "Sophia" means wisdom, mastery. Our ancestors treated it with the broader meaning - this word was about a great human community, the expression of the unity of all inhabitants in the principality. The temple was build with the help of Greek artisans. The limestone with autographs (probably of ancient masters of the XI cent.) was found in the foundation of the cathedral's south wall. Almost  1000 years later this stone  become a museum exhibit and is the monument of the XI cent. written language.

The construction of St. Sophia's Cathedrals in Kyiv, Novgorod and Polatsk was inspired by the Sophia in Constantinople built in the 6th century. Belarusian historian and archeologist S. Tarasau noticed the similarities of the Polatsk building with the same temple in the city of Ohrid (Macedonia) on the Balkans, which was built before the Polatsk Cathedral. He thinks that the Polatsk temple could have been built under the direction or influence of Bulgarian masters, as it's known that Bulgarians did built temples on the Polatsk Principality's territory.

The Chronicles don't mention anything about the Polatsk Sophia's Cathedral construction process. This memorial was first mentioned in "Žycije Jeŭfrasinni Polackaj" and "The story of Igor"s campaign". In the "List of Ruthenian Towns", included in the Novgorod chronicle at the end of the 14th cent, there is a record: "Sviataja Sophia kamenna o sedmi versech".

While the Roman West was experiencing a complex period of transition from the wooden to the stone temples construction, the Kyivan Rus and Polatsk had already been using Byzantine architectural tradition in the construction of cross-domed temples. Later on, Polatsk masters developed their own architectural standards so that by the 12th century a distinct Polatsk school of architecture  emerged. These peculiarities were depicted In the Polatsk Sophia's construction. So the blind copying of the Eastern tradition didn't take place there. The local tradition made significant influence, and the Roman West also influenced local architectural decisions, although at that time its impact was of limited value. But during subsequent centuries a gradual increase of the Western European influence took place in the local art.

Probably, in the 11th c. the Polatsk Cathedral was built on the place of a burnt wooden temple. It had survived several fires. It had seven domes. According to the Byzantine standards the temple ought to be five-domed. The Sophia's Cathedrals in Kyiv and Novgorod were 13-domed and five-domed respectively. The Belarusian scientists suppose that  7 domes of St. Sophia's Cathedral in Polotsk  symbolized seven Ecumenical Councils. It expressed the  independence and inviolability of the Polotsk land.

From the very beginning the Polatsk Sophia had been the center of Christianity spreadship among the principality. So, the  time was passing, the princes were changing but the temple was steadily uniting Polatsk christian-believers.  The scientists suppose that sometimes the episcopal power in Polatsk was considered higher than the power of the prince and significally influenced the political  life of the town and principality.

But the Cathedral didn't play only the role of a religious center. Its fait was the whole town's fait. Every most significant event in Polatsk life was linked with its main temple. It was also used to receive ambassadors, to declare war and conclude peace, to safe-keep princely treasures and house the library founded by Prince Iziaslau, to sign trade agreements and to enthrone princes.

The place in front of the cathedral was used to hold public assemblies (vecha), which played a significant role in the town's life too. That was the way for the citizens' will to be heard by the Prince. The vecha did limited the Prince's power, but didn't aim to to destroy it. The peculiarity of Polatsk reign was the coexistence of the Prince's and vecha's influence. 


second half of XVI - second half of XVIII cent.

In the pictures dating to the 16th century the temple had already five domes, it reminded the fortress able to defend. At 1607 the Sophia burned and was rebuilt by the uniate archbishop Jasafat Kuncevič. By his order the famous architect Andreas Kromer renewed the cathedral in 1619-1622.

But the Kromer's building also suffered from the fire in 1643, the Sophia was renewed soon again. The great destruction was inflicted during the Northern war, when the Russian army headed by Peter the Great was located in Polatsk from 1705 to 1710. By the tsar's order the cathedral was adopted to store military ammunition and gun-powder. On May the10th, 1710 the powder's explosion occured in the Sophia's basement. The cathedral was heavily corrupted and stood desolated for many years. From 1738 to 1750 it was rebuilt by the uniates in the style of Vilno Baroque. In such form it remaines nowadays. From the ancient temple built almost the millenium ago after multiple corruptions and renewals only the basement, the Western and the Easterm walls (8 and 12 meters high), parts of support posts and the Eastern apse (about 10 meters high) did survive, the rest above dates to the 18th century.

The rivalry among catholics,uniats and the members of the Orthodox Church in the sphere of temple- construction resulted in the use of the most beautiful architectural means of baroque. As a result during the 17th -18th c.c. on the lands of the GDL the peculiar architectural-artistic direction of the late baroque was founded, known under the name of Vilno baroque.This direction embraces the period from 1725 to 1775 years, it is signified as the original-artistic phenomenon in the context of the all-european art.

On the place of the destroyed ancient temple the majestic uniat cathedral was built. The inhancement of the cathedral continued to 1765 y. The cathedral was built at the expences and by the order of the uniat priest Flaryian Grabnizky. He was born in 1684, after the graduation from the Vilno Univercity he got the doctor of theology. At the age of 32 he became the archbishop in the city of Vitebsk. At the age of 35 he took the Polotsk archbishop seat.He passed away in 1762 at his out of town residence in Strunne. His burial place was St.Sophia's Cathedral in Polotsk. In 1912 this place was discovered.

second half of XVIII - first half of XIX cent.

To the left side from the cathedral in 1752-1763 a 3-storeyed building of the Basilian monastary was constructed, which together with the temple formed a unique architectural ensemble. Unfortunately, the monastary hasn't survived, we can only see it in the postcards of the XXth c.

After the reconstruction in the XVIIIth c.  the cathedral was partially rebuild in 1876-1878, 1913. Great restoration was done in 70-80th of the XXthc.( architect V.Sliunchanka), when thr outlook of the XVIIIth c. was returned to the cathedral.

In the baroque style the uniats used allegories, signs and symbols. They treated symbols as the emotianal perception of the invisible essence of God. It is not by chance that they called such an architectural form like St.Sophia's Cathedral, basilika - the house of the Tsar of Heaven. The side walls of the cathedral were assumed as the symbols of the New and the Old Testaments, the pillars and columns  are prophets and apostles and the entrance to the temple is the beginning of the Paradise. The tiered structure of the towers had the idea of the ascension to God, 2 towers ment the double nature of a man both earthly and divine. The Sophia used to be the Uniat  Church for 243 years - since 1596 to 1839.

After the ban of the uniat religion in 1839 the cathedral again had been the Orthodox Church and had acted like that till the mid.20-s of the XXth c. During the war it acted for some time, its right tower was damaged but after the war it was rebuilt. The after-war generation of Polotsk citizens remember the cathedral beeing a book-storage,  archives.Its real rebirth took place only in 70-80s of the XXth c.  After that it became the museum of architecture and the concert hall of organ and chamber music.

The history of the Polotsk Sophia continues nowadays. Here the inspiring work of the artists-architects of different epochs and the unique sound of the organ are flowing together into one ideal harmonious synthesis. The Sophia today is a visiting card of the city and its cultural heart  Annually  International festivals of organ and chamber music take place in Polotsk. In April and in October Polotsk and the Sophia become the musical center of Belarus.

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