The Meaning of Wisdom in St. Sophia of Kiev

Only a few scholars have broached the difficult problem of the meaning of Wisdom in the cathedral church dedicated to Holy Wisdom in eleventh-century Kiev. The abstruseness of this problem lies in the fact that there is no direct reference to Wisdom as such anywhere in the cathedral, as was also the case for its model, Hagia Sophia, the church of Holy Wisdom in Constantinople. The key to Wisdom’s meaning is symbolic analysis of the frescoes and mosaics, according to a tradition which deliberately hides its deepest mysteries below the surface, obvious meaning.

Sergej Averincev, in a now-famous article on the inscription in the conch of the apse above the Mother of God’s head, broaches the Mother of God’s symbolic association with Wisdom. He engages in a long excursis on the classical and neo-Platonic roots of the concept of Wisdom in order to show the allusive context in which her image exists and specifically its role of symbolizing a world order inherent in the city and the church.(1) John Meyendorff indicates that the entire apse program in St. Sophia derives its significance from the patristic exegesis of Proverbs 9:1–5, “Wisdom builds her House.” V. Brjusova devotes an article to the particular tradition of patristic exegesis of this passage, which influenced the decoration of Wisdom churches, specifically to the “Questions and Answers of Anastasius the Sinaite” (translated in the Izbornik Svjatoslava of 1073).(2)

Yet none of these scholars have addressed the relevance of this symbolism to the image of the royal family on the western wall of the nave. Nor have they examined the model of rulership, the state and history implicit in this wisdom symbolism as it developed from its origins in Hebraic Wisdom literature, through early Christian and Byzantine exegetical tradition of “Wisdom building her house.”

Today’s paper will examine St. Sophia’s apse decoration in light of this exegetical tradition. I will show that while reflecting the influence of the exegesis of Proverbs 9:1–5 in “The Questions and Answers,” the apse decoration alludes to a source text for this later exegesis, the first century “Epistle to the Hebrews.” By placing this “Epistle” in the context of the “Questions and Answers,” the apse mosaics testify that the epistle was itself considered a translation of “Wisdom building her house” into Christian terms. This translation, as I will show, endowed the Wisdom tradition with theological depth and historical-providential significance. I will describe how it illuminates the meaning of the royal figures in the church and relates them to a model of historical providence and ontological truth which makes “eschatological” wholeness mystically present in time. I will then briefly indicate how these ideas directly resonate with the portrayal of the ruler in Hilarion’s Sermon on Law and Grace.

In my conclusions about the ideology of the ruler and the “kingdom” in Kievan Rus′, I will show how the Wisdom paradigm in St. Sophia relates to the analysis of the ruler’s charisma and its significance by M. Černjavskij in Car′ and People. I will indicate how this paradigm foreshadows the Muscovite ideology of the ruler and the state embedded in the Wisdom symbolism I analyze in an earlier article.(3) (This inheritance, I recognize, was indirect, since it occurred through Novgorod where the Wisdom tradition of Kievan Rus′ had remained alive.)

1. S. Averincev, “K ujasneniju smysla nadpisi nad konxoj central′noj apsidy Sofii Kievskoj,” Drevne-russkoie iskusstvo, Moskva, Nauka, 1972, 25–49.

2. John Meyendorff offers excellent descriptions of the iconographic exegesis of Proverbs 9:1–5 in “Wisdom-Sophia: Contrasting Approaches to a Complex Theme,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers, 391–401, 392. See also V. G. Brjusova, “Tolkovanie na IX pritču Solomona,” in Izbornik Svjatoslava 1073, Moskva, Nauka, 1977, 292–306. On p. 301 she speaks of the variations of this exegesis in the altars of Byzantium, the Balkans, Georgia and Russia, including St. Sophia of Kiev.

3. See P. Hunt, “Ivan IV’s Personal Mythology of Kingship,” in Slavic Review 1993, 52, no. 4, 769–810.