Since the 11th century, when the grand St. Sophia Cathedral was built, the saying has gone, «Where there is St. Sophia, there is Novgorod.»
The cathedral was founded by Yaroslav the Wise and his son Vladimir. It was built fr om 1045 to 1050 years and is the oldest surviving stone building of Ancient Rus. Novgorod citizens have always regarded the cathedral with the greatest reverence. For example, they believed that it was Sofia who protected the city from Tatar attacks. It is known that in 1238, Tatar troops turned back after nearly reaching Novgorod. Citizens regarded this as a sign of God. In 1391, the city was saved from a terrible plague. Again Novgorod citizens linked this with the intercession of St. Sophia. It should be noted that at the time of its construction, the cathedral was the only stone building in Novgorod.
According to legend, while painting the dome, the Savior's outstretched hand was depicted in the form of a fist. The fresco was repainted several times until the the painter had a dream wh ere Christ told him that he had deliberately balled his hand into fist to keep Novgorod in it.
The cathedral has five domes. In the 15th century, the central one was covered with gold, giving the cathedral an even more majestic appearance. Along with the gilding of the dome, a lead dove symbolizing the Holy Spirit was installed on the cross. A similar building in Ancient Rus, the Kiev Cathedral, has not survived to the present.
In the Martiryevskaya portico, exceptional images of Saint Constantine and Helena, dating to the 11th century, have stood the test of time. They are quite unusual: the fresco was not painted on wet plaster, as usual, but on dry plaster. Researchers believe that this technique was used to paint the ancient wooden churches of Rus.
The final interior decorations in the St. Sophia Cathedral were completed in the 12th century. Two icons from the 11th-century altar have survived: «Savior on the Throne» and «Apostles Peter and Paul». A newer, taller iconostasis was installed in the St. Sophia Cathedral much later, in the 14th-16th centuries.
Today, visitors enter the Cathedral through the northern door. The western gate, the main one, are opened during ceremonial services. This gate is unusual as well. They came to Novgorod as a war trophy from Sweden in the 12th century. The gate was made in Germany in the city of Magdeburg. In the 15th century, the gate was reconstructed by a Russian craftsman Abraham; his image can be seen today on the gate next to the image of the German foundry craftsmen Veysmut and Rikvin.
The icon Our Lady of the Sign, painted in 1170, is considered to be miraculous; according to a legend, she protected the city from a Suzdal invasion. This event played such a significant role in the life of the city that it is still celebrated as a revered religious holiday. This story became the basis for another famous icon named the Battle of the Novogorodians with the Suzdalians.
In addition to fragments of 12th-century frescoes, the St. Sophia Cathedral also has ancient birch bark graffiti, scrabbled with a stylus (even though Duke Vladimir the Baptist of Kiev by decree had forbidden the cutting of inscriptions on the walls of temples already in the 10th century). These inscriptions have survived largely because Novgorod's architecture was never destroyed by Tatar raids. The inscriptions often address the Christian God, but some carry the echo of heathen beliefs and others are of a purely routine character.
Thanks to this graffiti, we know the names of some of those who worked during the construction and decoration of this masterpiece of ancient Russian architecture. They are George, Stephen and Sezhir. Once the cathedral was built, it was painted in stages and in separate fragments. Real painting work in the cathedral began only in 1108. This work partially hid earlier frescoes that were later discovered during the renovation of the cathedral in the late 19th century.
There are two iconostases in the St. Sophia Cathedral today: the Assumption iconostasis and the Christmas iconostasis. Before the Assumption iconostasis, the miraculous icon Our Lady of the Sign can be seen. On the Christmas iconostasis, two icons that are considered to be miraculous can be seen: Our Lady of Tikhvin and Savior on the Throne. Our Lady of Tikhvin is the most revered icon. The Savior on the Throne icon was painted in the 16th century over a more ancient picture that also survived (it can be seen through special little windows).
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