Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Not just for chicken...

Continuing our tradition of spending Valentine’s Day in a post-Soviet country, Meg and I decided to take a week’s vacation in the Ukraine. As with our recent trips to Mongolia, we are lucky to have family members to visit – this time, Meg’s brother, John. But unlike Mongolia, and while John does speak Russian fluently, my wife also has a working knowledge of the language giving us a little more independence.

We’re also lucky that Kiev appears to be a pretty walkable city, even in the winter, even when clearing the sidewalks seems to be an afterthought. And so we’ve been able to take several good walks to take in some of the sights near John’s apartment. (This first picture is looking from the belltower of Saint Sophia down to Saint Michael's.)

Despite the German bombardment and bloody occupation of the city during WW2, itself sandwiched between a Soviet architectural style never known for its grace, downtown Kiev seems surprisingly pretty. There are certainly points of the city that seem to be in the state of practiced dilapidation that we’ve seen in Mongolia and Kazakhstan – and a similar number of tall, construction cranes on the skyline. However, unlike either of those places, a fair number of these cranes are actually working.

The downtown architecture does have a continental feeling to it – in no small part because a fair amount of the downtown buildings were built by Italian architects. The Cathedral of St. Andrew, for example, seen here was designed and built in an Italian Baroque architectural style by Bartolomeo Rastrelli.

Underneath all of this, literally, lies a much older city. The Cathedral of Saint Andrew, for example, is located on the spot that the Apostle Andrew legendarily predicted as the site for a great Christian city. As soon as you step inside the Saint Sophia Cathedral, you realize that in addition to the various layers of 18th, 19th, and 20thC restoration there are also still sections of 11thC stucco work. Saint Sophia is unusual (like the Gandan monastery in Ulan Bataar) in that in it was preserved during the Soviet era as a museum – left perhaps ostensibly as a monument to pre-communist degeneracy, but sentimentally I imagine because even the most cynical Party member couldn’t quite bring himself to level the incredible beauty of a sanctuary like Saint Sophia.

Where Saint Sophia is a museum, the remainder of the churches we’ve visited are all active as places of devotion. Like Saint Sofia, Saint Michael’s is an entire monastic complex with monks’ cells and a secondary chapel (dedicated to St. John and which seems primitive by contrast with its wooden shingled dome); Saint Andrew and Saint Vladimir are ‘merely’ stand-alone churches. And just incredibly gorgeous.

There is some speculation that the reason the Kievan Rus converted to the Eastern Orthodox church was because of Prince Vladmir's evoys' visit to the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul in the 10thC and their proclamation that "we knew not whether we were in heaven or earth. For on earth there is no such splendor or such beauty, and we are at a loss to describe it." Saint Vladimir is the only church we’ve been to that permits photography (albeit for a small fee) and, while I have always been fascinated by Orthodox icons. (I should ask my parents whether we visited Kykkos or another monastery when I was a boy, but I do remember being drawn to the religious painting there.) But, and as Sharon Gerstel noted in an exhibition catalog review, to only see these icons out of context on a gallery wall is to miss a huge amount: "Within a church, the icons would have evoked a different response. There, flickering candles or lamps enliven the holy faces, and the wooden panels on which they are rendered emit the pungent smell of incense. Within the darkened church the figures, set on a gold background, appear to wrench free from the strict confines of their wooden backing." Hopefully these pictures convey some of the glimmering majesty of these places.

On a technical note, all these pictures were taken on our new point-and-shoot. We really liked our old Panasonic Lumix (which simply wore out) and decided to go with another, this time the DMC-FX580. I mention this only because I'm still experimenting with some of the shooting modes (of which there are many). The first interior picture, for example, was taken in a mode called 'Candlelight'. It has a a nice grainy B&W mode, and another called 'Pinhole' which puts an interesting fuzzy frame around the image. Stay posted.


Winter Bicycles said...


Meg said...

Wait until the next post where you reveal 'mummy fingers....'

Love you!


denise garro said...

great pics ....safe travels....steve and I leave for Baja wed am for 2 weeks....D