History of the Russian Church (Page 2 of 11)

By: ( Orthodoxy in Russia )Read time: 36 mins8141 Hits


The Flowering of Kievan Christianity: XI-XII Centuries

The eventual winner of the princely battles for the throne of Kiev was Yaroslav, later called ‘the Wise’ (1015-1054). It was during his reign that the Church in Russia grew at a pace far outstripping that of Vladimir. If under Vladimir the churches numbered no more than a few dozen, travelers to eleventh-century Russia reported that Kiev alone boasted six hundred churches. The most splendid of these was the Cathedral of St. Sophia, consciously modeled on its namesake in Constantinople. There was no doubt that Yaroslav fancied Kiev as a rival to the Byzantine capital and the enthusiastic building of churches put flesh on this vision.

The reign of Yaroslav saw the first rapid flowering of Christian culture in Russia. The best masters of church architecture were invited from Byzantium, while churches in Pskov and Novgorod betray the influence of Romanesque architecture. Iconography, too, developed and produced the first native Russian genius in this field, St. Alimpy. Yet it was the art of letters that reached its first apogee under Yaroslav. The Primary Chronicle speaks of his love of the ‘sweetness of books’, meaning the exclusive promotion of the copying and translation of the Bible and other ecclesiastical writings such as the works of the holy fathers of the Eastern Church. The greatest example of early Russian literature is undoubtedly the Sermon on Law and Grace by the first native head of the Russian Church, Metropolitan Hilarion (1051-1055). This verbal icon combined a panegyric to Vladimir with a discourse on Russia’s place in sacred history. Hymnography, too, grew with the development of the so called Znamenny chant, a refinement of the chants inherited from Byzantium. The first of the great Russian monasteries – the Lavra of the Caves in Kiev – was founded by two Russian ascetics, Ss. Antony and Theodosius, drawing on the spirituality of the monastic peninsula of Mt. Athos in northern Greece. And in spite of the occasional anti-Latin rhetoric in the writings of St. Theodosius, the Western Church was rarely viewed with antagonism, even after the rupture in Eucharistic communion between the Churches of Rome and Constantinople in 1056. The dynastic marriages between the princes of Kiev and the royal houses of Europe, most notably between Prince Vladimir Monomakh and Princess Ghita, daughter of the English King Harold, would seem to indicate a continuing Christian fellowship between the Western and Russian Churches that would be extinguished only with the Mongol invasion in the early thirteenth century. Between the Russian princes themselves oaths and peace treaties would be taken at a ceremony of the kissing of the Cross and disputes would be arbitrated by bishops of the Church, although this was no guarantee of non-violations of promises made.

Christianity flourished and reached the hearts of medieval Russians differently from the way Christianity spread in the West. There was no separate caste of celibate priests, for parish priests of the Eastern Church were married men. Nor would Kievan Christianity inherit any of the classical learning that was an integral part of Western Christian culture. The ancient Latin and Greek inheritance seemed superfluous in an emerging Christian culture where the language of worship was cognizant with the vernacular language. At a time when the great universities of Oxford, Cambridge and the Sorbonne were being founded under the direct guidance of Latin monastic orders, there was nothing comparable in Kiev. However, it was to the Christian East of Constantinople, Athos, Syria and Cappadocia that Kiev looked, not Paris or Rome, for its inheritance and found it in an abundance of translations of the holy fathers and the beginnings of native schools of church architecture, icon painting and choral music. Book learning was valued equally at both extremes of the now Christian continent of Europe. Russia had passed the stage of being a young nation among more senior Christian siblings; she had now become a Christian civilization.

Previous page | Next page