The majestic landmark of Belarus is the St. Sophia Cathedral in Polotsk. It was erected in the 11th century, has undergone a series of fires, destruction, changes, reconstructions, but still serves people – as an architectural, historical and cultural value and as a religious building.
The Legacy of Ten Centuries
Originally the Cathedral of St. Sophia in Polotsk was built by Prince Vseslav. Apparently, he did a lot of glorious things if he carried the nickname of Enchanter. On his orders in 1030-1060 Byzantine and local craftsmen worked on the construction of a large church where the Upper Castle was located. The Constantinople basilica was the model for the new temple.
The church was built in the canons of Orthodox architecture of the era: had seven domes, thick walls (at least two meters), tower with stairs, which climbed to the princely choir.
Vseslav Brjachislavic chose the place according to the best traditions. The temple was part of a complex of princely buildings on the high bank of the Western Dvina, where the small river Palata flows into it. It ensured the safety of religious shrines, was the tomb of Polotsk princes. Historians confirm that the mention and brief description of St. Sophia Cathedral in Polotsk is in several ancient sources of the 11th-12th centuries.
Between Two Denominations
A difficult fate awaited the church afterwards. Several times it suffered from large fires. The power was changing and the building was given a new special role. The Brest Church Union in 1596 gave the church to the Uniates. Thus, at the end of the 16th century it became Greek Catholic and its appearance was modified. Then during the Russo-Polish war he went over to the Orthodox Church, and in 1667 again to the Uniates.
But it was not only architecture that was subjected to destruction and “repression. The Orthodox population was concerned about too much pressure from Catholic priests. This translated into several severe events in the 17th century and early 18th century. Religious strife led not only to a change of denomination, but also to bloodshed. One such tragedy, which occurred in 1705, is connected with the name of Peter the Great.
The explosion of a gunpowder warehouse led to the destruction of the cathedral in 1710. It was not until 1738-1950 that the architect Johann (Jan) Christoph Glaubitz undertook to rebuild the structure. In 1812. Napoleon, like the Russian tsar, showed no respect for the church. Within these walls he set up a stable. In 1839 the cathedral became Orthodox again. Before World War I it was renovated and restored. The building was turned into a museum of local history due to the atheistic and educational ideology of the Soviet system in the 1920s. The Germans, who occupied the land, used the building as a church.
Architectural merits of St. Sophia Cathedral
The architectural style of St. Sophia Cathedral in Polotsk is the Vilna Baroque, also called Late Belarusian. From the ancient building remain the eastern apse, foundation stones, partly – the columns. On some of the stones archaeologists found the signatures of its builders.
The snow-white building with two towers, 50 meters high each, looks beautiful on the high bank of the river. The Baroque introduced figurative cornices, moldings, bas-reliefs, and sculpture that served to decorate the church interior.
The interior decoration is very spectacular. White walls with gold trim, columns, arches, and elegant decor set the mood for the sublime. Some of the frescoes have survived from earlier times: such as “The Savior Not Made by hands”, “The Last Supper” (copied from a painting by Leonardo da Vinci).
Concert Hall and Museum
This magnificent monument of earlier years serves a variety of purposes: both cultic, religious and secular, tourist. The Orthodox service and procession on St. Euphrosyne of Polotsk Memorial Day reminds us of the original role of the church building.
The restoration and archaeological work that was carried out in Soviet times, in the 1980s, gave new life to this complex. There are organ music concerts and festivals. The acoustics of the huge hall and the organ of the Cathedral of St. Sophia of Polotsk leave an unforgettable impression.
The Museum of Architectural History is also very interesting. It has been one of the most visited places in this Belarusian city, known for its rich historical and cultural heritage, for more than 30 years. There is a model of the 11th century temple (very reminiscent of Novgorod and Kiev cathedrals) and unique archaeological exhibits.
- It is the oldest stone construction on the territory of the Republic of Belarus.
- UNESCO included it in the tentative list of World Heritage Sites.
- To get acquainted with it helps audioguide in several languages (you can choose Belarusian, Russian, English, Chinese).
- A concert hall was created here and an organ was installed in 1985. In a year they organize more than three hundred concerts, festivals, and cultural events.
It is also worth a walk in the surrounding area. There is another relic here: The Boris Stone. A huge boulder, with inscriptions and crosses inscribed on it, once played the role of a boundary post in the possessions of the prince.
Working hours of St. Sophia Cathedral
In summer, you can visit the museum from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily (except Mondays). The rest of the time it is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (also except Mondays). The ticket office stops working half an hour before the museum closes. The administration asks to pay attention to the poster and special events, because of which the access of sightseers is limited.
All useful information can be found on the official website of the Museum of St. Sophia Cathedral sophia.polotsk.museum.by.
How to get to St. Sophia Cathedral
Address of the Cathedral of Sophia – Polotsk, Zamkovaya Street, 1. The city is located in the Vitebsk region of the Republic of Belarus. Tourist routes lead from Vitebsk to Polotsk National Historical and Cultural Reserve.
Cathedral on the map of Polotsk