October 06, 2017

Photo Essay: Monastery of the Caves (Києво-Печерська лавра)

For anyone who's never been to Kiev, its skyline might still look familiar, if they've ever seen the gilded, onion-domed Ukrainian Orthodox churches that you can find in areas near major cities, like Brooklyn and East Hollywood.

But those domes and those churches are actually somewhat of a rarity in the city of Kiev—at least in their original forms—thanks to the eradication of houses of worship in Ukraine in the 1920s and '30s.

Religion? Pffft. After it took hold in 1917, the Soviets wanted everyone's religion to be Communism.

Some of the former sites of churches have been preserved as ruins, and some cathedrals have been rebuilt. But there's one sacred place in Kiev that was granted a reprieve because it transformed into a "museum park" in 1928: Pechersk Lavra, or Monastery of the Caves.

Even today, it's a cultural complex of a dozen or so museums, ranging in topics from folk art to typography, music and theater, and even micro-miniature sculptures.

But now that Ukraine has shed its Communist trappings, the Monastery of the Caves can once again welcome worshipers not only to its churches, but also to its catacombs that contain the mummified relics and remains of various Orthodox saints—including Agapetus of Pechersk (an 11th century healer), Nestor the Chronicler (an 11th century monk at the Lavra and author of the Primary Chronicles), Kuksha (a 12th century martyr and missionary), and Alipy of the Caves (a 12th century saint and religious mural painter).

In order to visit the subterranean crypt, women have to don headscarves and skirts, both of which are provided, as are beeswax candles that light the way in the dark corridors that are crowded with babushkas kissing the glass compartments that contain shriveled hands and decomposing limbs peeking out from their holy shrouds.

This campus, built upon Mount Berestov and overlooking the Dnieper River, was founded by a Greek Orthodox ascetic monk named Antoniy (a.k.a. Saint Anthony) over a thousand years ago—and, despite the attempt to de-religify Ukraine in the 20th century, it still has about a hundred monks living there (reportedly in subterranean quarters).

You can even drink holy water from a fountain there.

And there are, of course, the very serious religious services that continue to be held in the 11th century Dormition Cathedral (a.k.a. Church of the Assumption), whose original structure had been destroyed during the Nazi Germany troop occupation of Kiev during World War II.

Thankfully, it was reconstructed and consecrated in the year 2000.

And today, you can also visit a number of other chapels and churches from the 12th, 17th, and 18th centuries (and more) at the Lavra, including the Refectory Church (Трапезна Палата), the Church of All Saints, the Church of the Saviour at Berestove (Церква Спаса на Берестові), the Church of the Exaltation of Cross, the Gate Church of the Trinity (Троїцька Надбрамна церква), the Church of the Nativity of the Virgin, the Church of the Conception of St. Anne, and the Church of the Life-Giving Spring.

Most of them have been rebuilt to some degree or another over the last several centuries—each retaining their original architectural styles, be they baroque, Byzantine, Neo-Russian, classical, neoclassical, or just downright medieval.

Of course, the Soviet rejection of religion in the 20th century wasn't the first time that the Monastery of the Caves was threatened. Despite a fortification that was erected in the 12th century, the Mongols were still able to break through the stone walls and invade the fortress. In the centuries that followed, they were replaced by walls made of wood.

The citadel was reconstructed again and again in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, when it was better known as the "Old Cave Fortress." Parts of it were used as a hospital and a prison, as needed.

And from the 18th century, classical-style bell tower (Велика Лаврська дзвіниця)—which rises 30 stories high—you can see it all.

At least, everything that's above ground. Those caverns go as much as 65 feet underground.

And with as much as you can see while you're up there, you might not be able to hear much other than the ringing of the tower's 18th century bells (the Balyk, Voznesenskyi, and Bezymiannyi).

Besides its architectural, religious, and military significance, the Monastery of the Caves has played a fascinating role in the rise of Kiev as the Ukrainian capital—once having been quite a wealthy operation, as well as the site of Ukraine's first printing house.

Of course, the Soviets tried to stop the publication of all new printed matter. At one point they'd seized all the bells. And they'd shown a complete disregard for the sacred remains of the saints in the catacombs, leaving them exposed to the elements.

Somehow, though, the monastery has managed to survive.

And today, most people have no idea as to the extent of the property, with urban legends claiming that those caves and tunnels extend far beyond our imagination—perhaps even under and through to the other side of the river.

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