During each of my three visits to Lviv, I have found myself at St. George’s Cathedral. One would imagine that by this point the cathedral would have exhausted my curiosity. On the contrary, I am planning to go there again on my next visit. The more I have read about the church, the more fascinated I have become with its architectural and spiritual importance, both to the Ukrainian nation and to the individual. It is more than a church, it is a national shrine, but it also works on the deepest of personal levels. I became intimately aware of the latter during my first visit to the Cathedral in 2011.
Three Hills Above Lviv
There are three famous hills in Lviv, each known for being the site of a memorable building. As the city was set out along the Poltva River valley, these hills flanked that valley. The most well-known of these was a hill on the eastern side of the river that was once the setting of High Castle, the princely residence and fortification which towered over medieval Lviv. Today there are only scant ruins and faint traces in the earth where the castle once stood. On the western side of the river valley, the Austrian Habsburg rulers built a fortification known as the Citadel in the mid-19th century. This site would later become infamous for its role during World War II as the scene of an internment camp where as many as 100,000 Soviet prisoners of war starved to death. Today one of the Citadel buildings houses a luxury hotel, while the others are derelict.
Not too far away from the Citadel stands St. George’s Hill. This prominence is home to the most important Ukrainian structure in the city, St. George’s Cathedral. It was once the administrative and still is the spiritual home of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. The cathedral is a bastion of the Ukrainian nation and one of the premier architectural wonders in Lviv. It stands above much of the city, on a 321 meter high hill. The cathedral’s placement on this hill has made it a prominent symbol of the enduring faith of the Ukrainian people who call this land and its most famous city home.
The Ascent To St. George’s
Making my way up St. George’s Hill and to the cathedral for the first time was not very simple. It was a good twenty minute walk from Lviv’s Old Town, a fair distance away from the city’s main attractions. The church was built far outside the old medieval city walls. Despite being an outlier, the cathedral was placed in a prominent spot, atop one of the highest hills in the city. Its lack of protection, distance from the city and strategic setting meant it would become a target in wartime. This led to the first church on the site being destroyed by Polish forces in 1340. When I first walked up St. George’s Hill I did not immediately recognize its prime position. The city has grown up around it, so much that the surrounding development serves as a distraction from its unique hilltop setting. Only when I made the final ascent to the Cathedral did I realize that St. George’s was at the pinnacle of a hill.
I entered the complex through a gate displaying allegorical figures from the Greek and Roman Catholic Churches. It immediately became apparent that St. George’s was only one of the architectural wonders located on the site. An ensemble of buildings stood before me. These included the Metropolitan’s Palace, where no less a personage than Pope John Paul II stayed in 2001, along with the Curia, which houses the administration and a monastery. The complex also contains a garden and bell tower. Due to its golden dome, eye popping yellow exterior and rococo architecture, I sensed a festive aura. As I got closer this changed to a more serious and subdued feeling. Above the entrance I noticed a sculpture of St. George slaying the legendary dragon. Flanking either side of the portal were sculptures of Saints Leo – the namesake of Lviv – and Athanasius – the great champion of Catholic belief. This was an inkling of the reverential symbolism to come.
The Architecture Of Belief
Entering the church, my senses were overwhelmed by the smell of burning incense. I was astonished by the charismatic nature of the interior’s iconography. Spending my formative years in the dour and comparatively austere Presbyterian Church did not prepare me for the sensuality of spiritualism that pervades Uniate churches, such as St. George’s. The rituals, the allegorical meanings inscribed on the altar, the devotion etched on the expressive faces of the many women who filled the church on this weekday morning was astonishing. Everything in the Cathedral was meant to reveal deeper meanings, from its design in the shape of a Greek Cross, to the four-tiered iconostasis and the wonder working icon of the Virgin Mary covered in silver plating, St. George’s lends itself to greater contemplation and meditation. One could not help but feel reverential. Here was the architecture of belief. A deep and penetrating stillness overwhelmed me. I felt that my role here was as an observer, documenting in my memory this shattering sensory experience. My idea of a church had always been as a house of worship, nothing more and nothing less. Yet the magnetic symbolism of St. George’s gave me a new and mind altering perspective, a spiritual formulation of something deep in the human soul. The church was eternal and timeless, like life itself.
Each time I have returned to St. George’s Cathedral a sense of peacefulness takes hold of me as soon as that architectural ensemble comes into view. On top of a hill, overlooking a shimmering city, in a beaming cathedral, that is where the eternal lives on. For me St. George’s has become more than a cathedral. It is an architectural representation of a feeling, a deep and abiding sense of faith, a faith that can be found not so much in religion, but in the spiritual experience of being human.