Ukraine’s Capital of Spiritual Diversity

  • Ukraine’s Capital of Spiritual Diversity
Issue 12, April 2009.

Lviv has always been a city of many religious denominations. Located at one of the great crossroads of European culture, for centuries Lviv has been a place where different strains of Catholic and Orthodox Christianity have rubbed shoulders, leading visitors to claim that wherever you go in the city, you find a bar, a café or a church. As the city prepares to celebrate Easter, we take a look at this diverse religious heritage.

Many of Lviv’s largest churches can trace their roots back to the early years of Lviv in the 13th century. The Ukrainian Catholics, the Polish Catholics and the Armenian church have each had a diocesan seat in Lviv since the 16th century.
Meanwhile, in the 1700s the Orthodox community switched their allegiance to the Pope in Rome and became the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. This bond was forcibly dissolved in 1946 by the Soviet authorities, but despite Soviet-era oppression, religious pluralism remained rooted in the city and since the collapse of the USSR this tradition for spiritual diversity has made a comeback in post-independence Lviv. The city also historically had a large and active Jewish community, as witnessed today by the city’s many synagogues. Between 1941 and 1944 the Nazis destroyed much of this centuries-old Jewish tradition, but since the fall of the Iron Curtain the remainder of this once-proud Jewish community has experienced a faint revival. Among the architectural pearls lost during WWII was the Golden Rose synagogue, of which only the northern wall remains. Today about 35% of the city’s religious buildings belong to the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, 11.5% are owned by the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church, 9% by the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Kyiv Patriarchate), and 6% by the Roman Catholic Church. Until 2005 Lviv was the only Ukrainian city with two Cardinals: Lubomyr Husar (UGCC) and Marian Jaworski (RCC).

Renaissance glory and sitting Christ

In 1360 the foundations of the city’s Latin Cathedral, which stands at one corner of Rynok Square, were laid. Building works would last a further 100 years, producing a sensational gothic masterpiece which remains one of Lviv’s leading landmarks. The alter remains almost exactly the same today as it was almost seven hundred years ago, while much of the exterior was rebuilt following damage caused by a fire which destroyed much of the old town in 1527. Renaissance architecture is well-represented among Lviv’s churches, with the Chapel of Kapyans (1619) and the Chapel of Boims (1617) both offering classic examples of the late renaissance style. These two chapels were primarily designed to serve as mausoleums for rich citizens. The Chapel of Boims is breathtakingly decorated with carvings depicting Christ’s sufferings. The chapel is topped with an iconic cupola featuring one of the world’s few of sitting Jesus Christ sculptures. Tourists of all confessions are enchanted by the Armenian Cathedral, one of the oldest churches in Lviv. The construction of the cathedral began in 1356 and was modeled on the Cathedral at Ani, which was the capital of the ancient Armenian nation. One of the most extraordinary features of the cathedral remains the cupola mosaics created by a Polish member of Austria’s Secession fraternity, Jozef Mehoffer in 1908. The foundation of the dome is made of hollow ribs. These hollow ribs were assembled in clay pots, making the structure of the done one of a kind. The Armenian Cathedral was closed during the Soviet era but was reopened following independence and is now back in the hands of the Armenian Catholic Church.

Last resting place for a printing press legend

Everyone in Lviv knows the city’s medieval Rynok Square by heart, but few are aware that close by you can still find the remains of what was Lviv’s first town square. Old Rynok Square, as it is known today, is located at the beginning of Bohdan Khmelnytskiy Street, and here you can still find the John the Baptist Church, which is one of Lviv’s oldest surviving houses of worship with foundations dating back to 1260. A church was first build here for Constance, a Hungarian princess who is thought to have been the city’s founding figure Prince Lev’s wife. She is believed to be buried in the church, but excavations carried out in 1984 uncovered a total of 19 bodies dating back to 12th century, leaving the last resting place of the princess a mystery. Further along on the same street you will encounter the St. Onufrius Monastery and Church, which is most famous for once having provided Ivan Fedorov, the father of Ukrainian and Russian printing, with refuge. Ivan Fedorov moved to Lviv in 1572 after fleeing Moscow, where he was prosecuted for his technical innovations, which created competition for the Muscovite scribes. It was at the St, Onuphrius Monastery in 1574 that Fedorov published the second edition of the Apostolos. He was later buried here, although his tombstone has since mysteriously disappeared.