Present At The Creation – The Dominican Cathedral:  Passion, Fire & Unbelief In Lviv (Lviv: The Story of a City #13)

The Dominican monastic order was present at the creation, not of the world, but of Lviv. The Dominicans first arrived in the city by way of invitation from Princess Constance, wife of Prince Lev, the namesake and first owner of the city. Their arrival inaugurated a relationship with Lviv that has lasted to this very day. The physical embodiment of the Dominican presence in the city is their cathedral, which can be found today in the historic Old Town area. The Dominican Cathedral is often seen from a distance long before it is visited. That is because of its huge towering green dome, supported by no less than eight pairs of columns, one of the city’s most notable architectural landmarks. Another noticeable feature of the Cathedral is the Latin inscription, “Soli Deo Honor et Gloria” on the façade. Translated that phrase means “The Holy One! Honor and glory for him!” The Cathedral certainly honors God with its reverential Baroque artistry. For all of its exquisite detail, one aspect of the Cathedral can be easily overlooked, the fact that it still exists.

Dominican Cathedral with the Korniakt Tower rising in the distance

The Dominican Cathedral with the Korniakt Tower rising in the distance (Credit: Ветров С.)

Flames Of Passion – A Dominicans Complex In Lviv
The present day Dominican cathedral stands in almost exactly the same spot as the first Dominican Church constructed in Lviv during the late 13th century. This is an astounding achievement of persistence. The calamitous history of the Dominican churches that preceded today’s cathedral on that same spot would have been enough to make a religious order of lesser faith give up and build elsewhere. In retrospect, it is obvious that the Dominicans were totally dedicated to having a house of worship. On three separate occasions, Dominican churches at this location burned to the ground and were subsequently rebuilt. After a central arch collapsed, the final Gothic iteration of the church was disassembled in the mid-18th century. This was followed by the construction of the neo-Baroque edifice that still stands today.

Conflagrations and structural issues were not the only problems that threatened the Dominican churches and cathedrals.  An earlier 16th century Gothic version was damaged by that constant scourge of Lviv, siege warfare. Unlike most ecclesiastical structures that have suffered as collateral damage in military conflicts, the Dominican Cathedral was the center of battle in a jilted lover’s quarrel. The story involved the wealthiest and most desirable princess of the Polish Kingdom, Halszka of Ostrog and a powerful noble, Lukasz III Gorka who had taken her hand in marriage or so he believed. Halszka’s mother despised her son-in-law and fled with her daughter to Lviv. In effect, this was an unofficial action to declare the marriage null and void. Lukasz would have none of it, dutifully pursuing his wife to the city. Halszka and her mother took refuge at the Dominican Cathedral’s adjacent monastery. Lukasz led a siege of the complex, which included an artillery barrage. The siege brought the city’s economy to a halt, with trade suspended during the fighting.

Meanwhile, the love of Halszka’s life, Prince Simeon of Slutsk, managed to sneak into the monastery disguised as an impoverished beggar. Halszka and Simeon were then secretly married. Unfortunately, this marriage went nowhere since the Polish king sided with Lukasz. The king ordered the monastery’s water supply cut off. From that point onward, it was just a matter of time until the monastery surrendered. Halszka looked to be headed toward an unhappy fate, a life alongside Lukasz. Only death could intervene in her favor and so it did. She died not long after Lukasz took her away to live with him. The cause of her death was almost certainly a broken heart. In Halszka’s case all had not been fair in love or war. The Dominican order and its complex of religious buildings had offered her spiritual and for a time, romantic sustenance, but not nearly enough to save her life.

Baroque interior of the Dominican Cathedral

The beautiful baroque interior of the Dominican Cathedral (Credit: Robin Schull)

The Unbelievers – Irony, Hypocrisy & Communism
The greatest challenge to the Cathedral’s existence began in the mid-20th century. This challenge was the virulent ideology of Soviet communism and its promotion of atheism. During the post-World War II years, the communist authorities closed down the cathedral and adjacent monastery. For a period of time, the cathedral was reduced to being used as a warehouse for the storage of cement. Then the ideologues hit upon a much more intriguing idea, transforming it into a Museum of Atheism and Religion. The idea was to bring in young and impressionable schoolchildren so they could witness first-hand the degenerate works of bourgeois religion. They were supposedly going to be frightened away from traditional religion. The authorities must not have seen the irony and hypocrisy in this, since Communist atheism was a form of religion as well, the religion of unbelief. The museum led to unintended consequences. Works of sacral art from the Cathedral were unwittingly preserved by being displayed in the museum, rather than destroyed. The museum of religion also outlived the communist era, as it is still there today in the basement, displaying many sacred objects of worship used at the cathedral for centuries. Today, the religion of God thrives in the cathedral, the religion of Communism has been relegated to the dustbin of history.

Dominican Cathedral aglow in the sunlight

The Dominican Cathedral aglow in the sunlight (Credit: Талавєр Олександр)

Firm Foundations – Building Upon The Past
After the fall of the iron curtain, the Dominican Cathedral underwent another religious shift, this time a sectarian one. What had once been the Roman Catholic Church of Corpus Christi, was converted to the Greek Catholic Church of the Holy Eucharist. This put it in line with a new ethnic demography of Lviv, which was transformed in the years following World War II from a majority Polish city to a purely Ukrainian one. Today the church hosts regular services, weddings, funerals as well as thousands of tourists who come to view the sacral architecture housed beneath the Cathedral’s giant green dome. As for the rest of the Cathedral, it stands atop the foundations of all the Dominican Churches that go back to Lviv’s very beginning.

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