Hagia Sophia: Wisdom of God

The name Saint Sophia comes from the Greek Ἁγία Σοφία — and means “Holy Wisdom”. It is important to remember that the name of our parish — the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Saint Sophia Wisdom of God, should not be confused with the martyr St. Sophia, who together with her three daughters — Faith, Hope and Love — gave their lives for Christ in the early history of the Church.

Every year in September as close as possible to September 21, the Feast Day of the Parish’s Patron is celebrated on a Sunday to mark the Nativity of the Virgin.

At this feastday of the Θεοτόκος — the Ever-Blessed Virgin who gives birth to God and whose intercession with our Lord Jesus Christ, Orthodox Christians fervently pray for — is honoured for preparing the way for the Wisdom of God to become incarnate.

The first church bearing this name was completed by Emperor Justinian in 537 and became the focus of religious life in Constantinople (now Istanbul, in Turkey). Processions filed in and out of its doors on frequent saints’ days and most of the Byzantine emperors after Justinian were crowned in this church.

More than 10,000 people worked on the building of Hagia Sophia. When it was finished, Justinian is said to have exclaimed, “Solomon, I have outdone thee!” The superficies of the interior are over 23,000 square feet. Passing through two vast porticoes there is a huge vault some 186 feet high and 100 feet wide. The huge central dome, 107 feet across and set on four sturdy piers over the square central area, is flanked by a number of smaller domes. This Byzantine style of church architecture was widely copied, especially in Italy and the Balkans.

Hagia Sophia became a mosque after the fall of Constantinople. Sultan Mehmet II had a soldier flogged for trying to break up a mosaic in the Church of Holy Wisdom. The temple dedicated to Holy Wisdom is now a museum.

The Church of Saint Sophia at the Mother of All Cities of Rus’

In 1037, Saint Sophia Cathedral was one of the first Christian temples built in East Slavic lands. This majestic 13-domed church, famous for its frescoes and mosaics was named after the church in Constantinople. It was built at the behest of Yaroslav the Wise, Grand Prince of Rus’. The first library and school in Kyivan-Rus’ were situated in this church. The Cathedral was a part of the Saint Sophia Monastery complex — and the main metropolitan church of Kyivan-Rus’. Ceremonies to designate envoys, public meetings and the writing of chronicles took place here.

During a siege, as Turks stormed this church, some priests left the altar of Saint Sophia, taking with them the chalice and Blessed Sacrament — our Lord’s Body and Blood. They are hidden this very day in the secret chambers of Saint Sophia. Mongols, too, committed horrific massacres and razed many cities — but spared this church.

A City of Churches Crowned with Gold

In its day, Saint Sophia in Kyiv was a spectacle of golden domes, dominating all other churches. It was rumored to be more grand than its namesake in Constantinople; it was said to be both larger and packed with more treasures.

Kyiv, known as the “Mother of all cities of Rus'”, was a place where legend merged with reality. When Saint Sophia was built, it marked a time of prosperity for the Kyivan-Rus’ state; a time when it established and maintained close trading and diplomatic contacts with the countries of the Orient and the West. Many European Kings considered it an honour to establish matrimonial ties with the families of the Grand Prince of Kyiv. Rumors of the city’s wealth and beauty as well as the high state of the arts reached many countries of the world. Today as one crosses the threshold, the bustle of the present remains, while centuries recede.