Rynok Square (Market Square) is undoubtedly the epicenter of Lviv’s Old Town. For most of the year, throngs of tourists roam around the square, devouring Gelato, gazing at Renaissance and Baroque facades, taking hundreds of thousands of digital snapshots and soaking up the vibrant energy that pulses from the heart of Ukraine’s most European cityscape. This is the intersection of new and old Lviv, where modern tourism and the city’s historic heart intersect. Not surprisingly, very few tourists will take a 15 minute walk to the north, where they can visit Staryi Rynok, Lviv’s first market square. This was the epicenter of what might be called “ancient” Lviv. It was where the city first prospered and began to grow. Of course, the market square was eventually moved to its present tourist packed site, but a semblance of “ancient” Lviv still exists on Staryi Rynok, in the form of the Church of St. John the Baptist, an architectural relic that today also happens to act as a museum of relics. This church is where the antiquity of Lviv is best experienced.
From the Mists of Myth to Solid Evidence – “Ancient” Lviv
“Ancient” Lviv is shrouded as much in myth as it is in fact and the Church of St. John the Baptist is a representation of this. The church’s beginnings are vague, with stories and facts intermingling. Popular legend states that Princess Constance of Hungary, the wife of the city’s namesake Prince Lev Danilovich, commissioned the building of the church in the latter half of the 13th century. Constance was born in Hungary and was a devout follower of the Catholic faith. As the story goes, she invited Dominican monks to the city, who then proceeded to construct the church shortly after their arrival, making it Lviv’s first Catholic Church. This legend also states that following her death, Constance was buried in the church’s crypt. The veracity of this tale is open to debate, but does seem plausible if for no other reason than the church stood on Staryi Rynok just below High Castle (Vysokyi zamok), home of Lev and Constance.
Conversely, the church’s physical structure offers evidence of a later construction, specifically during the 14th century. Armenians arrived in Lviv as traders and brought their Uniate faith with them. The architectural basis for this theory concerns the masonry walls of the church, which resemble other examples from the same era. Whether this fact based theory or a story based legend is true, no one is likely to ever know the full story. What is known for sure is that the church suffered abandonment and neglect by the 15th century, as Lviv’s commercial and spiritual center moved away from Staryi Rynok. For two and a half centuries the church was left to crumble. It was not until the 18th century that it underwent the first of four reconstructions. The first of these did not last long, as a fire gutted much of the church in 1800. This led to another period of dormancy, lasting 36 years. Several 19th century reconstructions created most of the Neo-Romanesque structure that stands today.
Neglect as a Form of Preservation
A third period of neglect began with the first Soviet occupation of the city in 1939 as the church was closed for any type of religious function. An argument could be made, that the church was once again being preserved by neglect. Interestingly, during the second period of Soviet rule (1944 – 1991), the communist authorities did not entirely ignore the church. They allowed it to be viewed as a cultural set piece. Communist era visitors to the city were given a list of recommended must-sees, these included the Church of St. John the Baptist. This odd bit of promotion probably had something to do with the church’s deep roots in the “ancient” history of Lviv. Unfortunately during this time few tourists were allowed to visit. This was because Lvov (the Russianized name for Lviv) was a “closed” city. Tourists would have to get permission from the military authorities just to visit. This “closed” status, coupled with decades behind the Iron Curtain, meant the city and the church had few tourists during Soviet times.
In the 1990’s the situation slowly began to change. The Church of St. John the Baptist became part of the movement toward modern tourism. The Museum of Ancient Lviv Monuments was setup inside part of the church in 1993. The museum displayed everything from archeological findings to such sacral relics as a venerated 14th century icon, “Lviv Virgin and Child”, one of the oldest Ukrainian icons to be found in the western part of the country. In a strange post-Iron Curtain twist, the church was for many years only used as a museum. This changed in the spring of 2009 when it was officially reopened for religious services as the Archbishop of Lviv performed a ceremony blessing the church’s altar. Now it would open its doors to parishioners and visitors.
A Sense Of Discovery – Ancient and Justified
The “ancient” history of Lviv is today represented by the church, with its accompanying museum. It is a shame that more visitors do not take the time to explore this dual attraction. The church offers a window into the earliest days of Lviv. This was a place both mythical and factual with the church’s founding still open to speculation. This makes the history of ancient Lviv more intriguing and worthy of discovery. Much of that discovery now takes place within the walls of the Church of St. John the Baptist.