Ancient & Anonymous Roots – The Church of St. Nicholas In Lviv (Lviv: The History Of One City #18)

I have now made three trips to Lviv and plan on making more. Some might ask, why return, haven’t you seen everything? My reply is simple. I have barely scratched the surface. Take for instance, churches. I have visited only ten of the city’s churches. I say only, because there are still at least ninety more churches to visit. Lviv is nothing, if not a city of churches. There are over one hundred churches, cathedrals and monasteries of every size, shape and architectural style dotting the city. Many are world renowned. A comprehensive tour of Lviv takes in several of these.

Church of Saint Nicholas in Lviv

Church of Saint Nicholas in Lviv – the oldest church in the city (Credit: Wikipedia)

Back To The Start – Foundations Of A Church & A City
Every standard photo collection of Lviv includes an image of the Old Town’s skyline with the soaring steeples, domes and bell towers of churches. Textbook examples of Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque and Neo-Classical architectural styles are all to be found in these churches, often within short walking distance of one another. For all the magnificence of the city’s most notable houses of worship – St. George’s, the Latin, Dominican and Armenian Cathedrals, the Dormition and  St. Michael’s Churches – one church, almost always overlooked, goes all the way back to the very beginnings of Lviv. This church contains the city’s oldest existing physical remnants. It only makes sense that the Orthodox Church of St. Nicholas, what is considered Lviv’s oldest building, stands only a block away from Staryi Rynok Square, the old city center.

At one time Staryi Rynok was the commercial and political heart of the city. Today, it is just another urban square in a city full of them. The anonymity is deceptive, for this was where a great city actually took root. The proximity of the Church of St. Nicholas to the square was not a coincidence. Some historians state that the church was founded by Lviv’s merchant community. There are two reasons for this theory. First, that the church was located in close proximity to the gates of the old city market. Secondly, the fact that it was named for St. Nicholas, a patron saint of merchants, hints that the commercial class was behind the founding. Construction on the church took place in the late 13th century, during the initial laying of the city’s foundations. A straight lane connected it with the city’s political nerve center, High Castle (Vysokyi zamok). In 1292 Prince Lev Danylovych, the city’s namesake, granted perpetual land ownership of the site to the church. In a city with a history of constant change and upheaval, the Church of St. Nicholas managed to always retain its place. Because of the royal privileges granted to the church, some historians believe that St. Nicholas acted as the court church and burial place for the Princes of the Kingdom of Halych-Volhynia. Yet the princes and their kingdom were short lived, as was the centrality of the church to the spiritual life of Lviv.

Interior of the Church of St. Nicholas in Lviv

Interior of the Church of St. Nicholas in Lviv (Credit: Alex Zelenko)

A Church & A People – Ruthenians & Ukrainians
The original church was modelled on Byzantine-Ruthenian architecture of the time, with a uniquely Orthodox twist. It was arranged in the shape of a Greek equal armed cross, designed with three apses, three naves and topped with two cupolas. Later reconstruction in the early modern era introduced Baroque elements. While the church has stood in the same spot for over seven hundred years, the structure itself did not escape Lviv’s usual catastrophes. Floods, fires and pillaging by a host of invaders laid waste to the city time and again. The church was badly burned in 1623 and 1783. It had to be reconstructed in 1800. The frescoes that adorn both the church’s facade and its interior were added in the 20th century during a restoration. Thus, the church as it stands today is a much revised representation of its oldest self.

So what makes the Church of St. Nicholas special? How can it be the oldest building in Lviv after multiple restorations? The answer to these questions is twofold. The uniqueness of the church lies in its staying power. The fact that the church in some form or fashion has lasted from the city’s inception to the present is incredible. This is a tribute, not just to the power of the Orthodox faith, but the fact that the church represents more than just a religion. It also represents the original Eastern Slavic inhabitants of Lviv, the Ruthenians. They were the ancestors of today’s Ukrainians. The church, like the Ruthenian/ Ukrainian people, spent centuries in a city that was controlled by others. Yet, the church like the people has endured.

Side view - Church of St. Nicholas in Lviv

Side view – Church of St. Nicholas in Lviv (Credit: Wikipedia)

City of Churches
As to the question of whether or not the Church of St. Nicholas is the oldest building in Lviv, the answer is ambiguous. Of course, the church as it exists today is largely a product of reconstruction. Nevertheless, it still retains the hewn white limestone slabs that were laid at the time of its initial construction. These structural remnants are from the church’s earliest days making it the oldest building in Lviv with some of its original material. Slabs of limestone may not sound like much, but when contrasted with the fact that there is nothing else in the city this old, it is apparent that the church contains Lviv’s most ancient physical history. Thus it can be concluded, that the city and its deepest history is inseparable from its churches, starting with the Church of St. Nicholas.

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