The Cathedral of St. Sophia is one of the most important monuments of ancient architecture. Considered to be the oldest church in Russia and one of the oldest stone buildings anywhere on its territory, it was built between 1045 and 1050 AD to the orders of Prince Vladimir, the eldest son of Yaroslav the Wise. The name St. Sophia does not relate to any female saint but rather comes from the Greek for “wisdom,” as the cathedral was dedicated to the Holy Wisdom of God. For many centuries the people of Novgorod have considered St. Sophia to be the symbol of their city remembering the words by Prince Mstislav “Where St. Sophia is, there is Novgorod.”
Built almost a thousand years ago, the 38-meter high, five-domed structure to this day strikes by the enormity of its proportions and its profound impact on the life of Novgorod and ancient Russia. Its main dome was guilded in 1408 and the interior is decorated by a huge iconostasis with several rare icons on display. The oldest icon is probably “The Mother of God of the Sign” that is credited to have saved Novgorod from an attack by Andrey Bogolyubsky troops in 1170AD. Three famous sets of gates decorated the cathedral over the centuries: the Korsun Gates that were said to have been brought to Novgorod in the 10th century, the Vasily Gates that were later looted by Ivan the Terrible and influenced artwork in the Moscow Kremlin, and the Sigtuna Gates likely made by Magdeburg masters in the 12th century. A large bell sitting on the Kremlin’s ground lost its “ears” (or the hanging stubs) as punishment by Ivan the Terrible for alerting the people of Novgorod of his troops’ advance on the city, and so could not be hung and rung on St. Sophia belfry any more.
The cathedral played an important role in the life of Novgorod over many centuries. Used in early years as the burial place of the Novgorod Princes, during 12th – 15th centuries it became a ceremonial and spiritual center of the Novgorod Republic that sprawled from the Baltic Sea to the Ural Mountains. Sessions of the veche, the ancient parliament, took place in front of St. Sophia Cathedral where people of the city chose their government, passed laws and made important decisions during the most pivotal moments of Novgorod history. It also housed one of Russia’s oldest libraries which was later moved to St. Petersburg, and the city’s treasury was kept at St. Sophia in the medieval times.
Although the cathedral survived the Nazi occupation, it was looted and the large cross decorating the main dome was removed by the Spanish troops. For over 60 years it was kept on display at the Madrid Military Engineering Academy and was returned to the Russian Church in 2004.