Ukrainian Scholar Digitizes Kyiv’s Iconic St. Sophia for The Index of Medieval Art with Flash Grant

Feb. 24, 2023

After Fleeing Kharkiv on February 24, 2002, Julia Matveyeva Devoted Her Expertise to Cataloguing This Great Ukrainian Monument

With funding from a Council of Humanities Flash Grant, the Index of Medieval Art has supported a displaced Ukrainian scholar and incorporated the records on the mosaics of St. Sophia, a UNESCO world heritage site in Kyiv, in its online database.  Art History Specialist for the Index Maria Alessia Rossi conceived the project in response to Russia’s ongoing war with Ukraine, inspired by the efforts of departments around campus to lend support to Ukrainian scholars as well as the urgency she felt to showcase works of art from medieval Rus’ in the online database. Whereas the Index has long housed substantial material from medieval Rus’ in its card catalogue, none of it had been digitized.  “As a medievalist whose work focuses on Eastern Europe, I thought first of all let’s give an opportunity to a scholar whose livelihood and scholarly work have been disrupted by the war, and second let’s get the records online,” Rossi said. Director of the Index Pamela Patton said of the project, “I’m really, really pleased that Alessia thought of this and proposed doing it, and I’m grateful to the Humanities Council for funding it because it really paid off: it gave support to someone who needed it and it gave us the expertise we needed to bring in part of the back files that had been languishing.  It was a win for everybody.”  The choice of St. Sophia as the subject matter for the project was undebated. As Rossi put it, “as a medieval iconography database, you can’t not have that!”  After an international call for participation, Ukrainian scholar Professor Julia Matveyeva emerged as the ideal expert to take on the project.  

Panoramic view of St Sophia

St. Sophia Cathedral (Photo/st-sophia.org.ua)

 “St. Sophia is an architectural unicum, a canonical monument in the history of European art and culture." —Maria Alessia Rossi

Rossi explained that, of all of Kyiv’s monuments, “St. Sophia is an architectural unicum, a canonical monument in the history of European art and culture. Its architecture is innovative, original, extreme,” she continued, “and then its decoration is even more outstanding.”  Monumental in scale, the structure defined the skyline of medieval Kyiv, with a dome rising 29 meters above the ground.  The interior houses essential mosaics and wall paintings produced by a Byzantine atelier from Constantinople working together with local artists. “St. Sophia not only represents a central monument for our understanding of medieval Rus’ and its relationship to Byzantium, but also influenced medieval and post-medieval architecture throughout Eastern Europe,” Rossi said. At stake besides filling the lacuna of works of art from medieval Rus’ in the online database was also presenting a source to reflect historical accuracy. “The ongoing war is connected to misinterpretations and misrepresentations of what is Russian, a key example being the diverse claims laid to the material culture of Kyivan Rus’,” Rossi explained, “We want to make a stance and catalogue this monument the correct way.” 

“The ongoing war is connected to misinterpretations and misrepresentations of what is Russian. We want to make a stance and catalogue this monument the correct way.” —Rossi

The effort to digitize the Index’s extensive card files began in the 1990s with the creation of the online database.  St. Sophia, however, remained an example of crucial material that existed only in the cards.  “Most of our researchers do not come physically here, so they wouldn’t have had access,” Rossi explained.

Diamond-shaped embroidery of cherub in burgundy and gold hues.

Julia Matveyeva, Cherub (2002), handmade embroidery detail.

Once the Flash Grant was awarded, Rossi sought a scholar affected by the war in Ukraine who would be an expert in mosaics and also in Byzantine art, with reading knowledge of both Ukrainian and Russian.  Matveyeva couldn’t have been a better match.  A professor of fine arts who specializes in Byzantine mosaics, Matveyeva recently published a monograph titled Decorative Fabrics in the Mosaics of Ravenna: Semantics and Cultural Context (2020), arguing that textiles represent a “living language.” She is now working on a new project titled The Evolution of the Image of the Altar Space: From Liturgical Fabrics to Iconostasis in the 4th- 15th Centuries. Subjects, Semantics, Iconography. An artist herself, she also creates Byzantine-inspired textiles as well as watercolor landscapes.

When Russia invaded Ukraine, Matveyeva was teaching in the Department of Fine Arts and Design at the State Academy of Design and Art in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city.  The two courses she was teaching were “Drawing, Painting, and Sculpture for Architects,” which she taught in English to foreign students, and “The History of Ornament in the Decorative Arts,” in which students examined historical ornamental patterns and created their own designs.  “I was teaching when bombing began in Kharkiv on February 24th [2022],” Matveyeva said. “By the end of the day, I grabbed my two young daughters and drove away, leaving my home, my house, and my husband behind.”  Her husband had to remain and join the army. That marked the beginning of what Matveyeva described as a harrowing journey.  With minimal driving experience, she steered a Fiat 500 packed with her two daughters (aged 11 and 14), their personal belongings, a small collection of her own paintings, and her younger daughter’s pet rat on a month-long journey, first to Romania, and then on to Greece. “Thanks to the help of volunteers and a network of my art-history colleagues, their friends and relatives in Ukraine, Russia, Romania, Bulgaria, Spain, Israel, America, and Greece, we made our way to our first long-term refuge in a little town of Kalambaka in Greece, where a generous friend gave us shelter.”

“I was teaching when bombing began in Kharkiv on February 24. By the end of the day, I grabbed my two young daughters and drove away, leaving my home, my house, and my husband behind.” —Julia Matveyeva

Grateful to have a safe haven, Matveyeva and her children slept in one bed for six months before making another move, this time to Germany, where a family offered larger accommodations. They continue to live in a village near Stuttgart, all three trying to learn German, though Matveyeva anticipates her daughters will fall a year behind in school and sees little hope for an academic position for herself. “But I do not give up easily,” she said, “and I tried really hard in Greece to come up with projects and ideas that would make use of my extensive knowledge of Byzantine art and textiles, as well as my skills in creating and teaching the traditional techniques of Byzantine-style embroidery, tapestry, and lace-making. I was and still am doing everything in my power to find employment locally while remaining a highly qualified specialist in my professional field.”

Interior of St. Sophia

St. Sophia interior. (Photo courtesy of Julia Matveyeva)

Matveyeva learned of the Index’s St. Sophia opportunity through friends. “I was surprised and overjoyed that I could contribute to the international studies of one of my favorite art objects, and one I am so familiar with,” she said of St. Sophia. She describes the monument as “One of the earliest and the most important churches of the old Kyivan Rus’, it combines complex harmony of architecture with the strikingly powerful monumental images of luminous mosaics.” The sophistication of this remarkable monument is evident, she says, in messages embedded in the architecture and décor whose interpretation requires persistent dedication. “Like any great work of art, it reveals something new to every generation of researchers and admirers,” she says, “but one doesn't have to be an art historian to fall under the spell of its awe-inspiring grandeur.”

Beginning in August 2022, Matveyeva spent two days per week remotely working on the St. Sophia project, meeting with Rossi on a weekly basis to discuss progress. Rossi provided scans of the Index’s cards created in the 1940s, which Matveyeva was tasked with supplementing and updating. “Scholarship was different in the 1940s,” Rossi points out, “and sometimes they didn’t even have colored photos, so, iconographic details could be misinterpreted.”  Accessing current research on St. Sophia’s mosaics, Matveyeva updated content as she worked, including colors in all of the descriptions where they had previously been missing.  Matveyeva’s own interest and deep knowledge of St. Sophia expanded during the course of her work. “When one spends several months combing through information, one can see more clearly the results achieved throughout many years of research and appreciate all the data neatly collected into one folder,” she said.  But in taking stock of the wealth of knowledge residing in the Index’s cards, she observed, “it is also a wonder how many questions remained unanswered.”

Zoom screenshot showing Rossi and Matveyeva with Index cards

Screenshot of Matveyeva and Rossi collaborating via Zoom. (Image courtesy of Maria Alessia Rossi)

An example of a discovery that emerged through Matveyeva’s work involves the evolution of the cloth hanging from the belts under the phelonion of priests traceable in the mosaics of St. Sophia. Only the top portion of the cloth is preserved in the mosaics, obscuring its shape.  Causing further confusion among scholars, two terms with distinct meanings and describing different objects, enchirion and epigonation, were used interchangeably from the Byzantine to the modern Greek and Romanian traditions. After careful scrutiny of examples dating back as far as the mid-11th century, Matveyeva concluded that the enchirion (ἐγχϵίριον), a plain, soft, pliable handkerchief, gradually transformed into the more dense, rigid, richly embroidered epigonation (ἐπιγονάτιον). Enchirion is translated to mean “covering the hands” and refers to the maniple (manipula, dominicale), a handkerchief worn by priests in their belts in the early Byzantine period and used to cover the hands for taking communion. Oranta, the Virgin Mary, wears an enchirion in her belt in the main apse of St. Sophia of Kyiv, emphasizing her priesthood. Though handkerchiefs fell into disuse in the 12th century, they remained a distinguished symbol of priestly dignity. Neither thin nor flexible enough to fit under a belt as with the enchirion, epigonations were affixed using special fasteners. “All this restoration of the evolution of the subject happened for me thanks to the mosaics in St. Sophia of Kyiv,” Matveyeva explained.

Mosaic detail showing five figures

St. Sophia mosaic detail illustrating objects interpreted as either enchirion (ἐγχϵίριον) or epigonation (ἐπιγονάτιον).

Rossi was stunned by Matveyeva’s discovery of spelling errors within the mosaics themselves. “You would never think that!” she explained.  “It’s mosaic, so it’s extremely expensive. It’s a beautiful, beautiful work of art - and then you see that they misspelled names of individual saints or inscriptions accompanying specific scenes such as that of the Annunciation.”  Another revelation was the recognition that many works had been restored with oil painting filling in areas where the original image was missing.  “These are the things that you see when you start looking... really, really looking.” Rossi said. “You read in scholarship, ‘this is preserved,’ but then when you look at the image, it’s not really preserved; a small piece of it – a foot of the apostle, for example—is preserved, and then the rest is speculative oil painting restoration from the 20th century.”

Both Matveyeva and Rossi speak highly of one another in their collaborative work. “I would really like to thank project leader Maria Alessia Rossi for organizing the process of working on the index. She treated my work with the deepest understanding and interest, highly appreciating my digging into details and terms. Alessia enjoyed new discoveries and made discoveries with me, and all this created a very positive and motivating working atmosphere for me,” Matveyeva said.  “I will always be very pleased to remember this fruitful cooperation.” Mateyeva completed all of the mosaics and equipped Rossi with citations for all of the frescoes remaining.

Matveyeva’s work on all the Index’s records on St. Sophia’s mosaics has now been incorporated into the online database and made available for scholars the world over.

Since completing the project, Matveyeva continues to search for projects that utilize her specialized knowledge and she has turned her energy toward creating new works of art.  “You can’t return to the past - and regrets only inflame the soul and take away strength - so I decided to look only forward, build my life anew and try to do the best that I can do today,” she said. A full year after the beginning of the war, bombing continues in Kharkiv; in early February 2023, her University was hit.  Her mother and brother remain in Ukraine, working as volunteers to help the front.

Watercolor of a landscape in blue and green muted hues with a red fishing boat.
Julia Matveyeva, Gentle Sunny Morning on the Donets River near Kharkiv, watercolor painting of the countryside near Kharkiv, Ukraine, where Matveyeva taught her daughters to fish.

Matveyeva is now preparing an exhibition of her paintings in her new home in Germany. “Some of them were painted in Ukraine and people will see a quiet and flourishing Ukraine and learn about it,” she said. Other paintings and texts recount her travels in Romania and Greece, as well as her new home in Germany. She is calling the exhibition Silence, Peace and Revival.  “This is what I would like to see, create and give to people,” she said.

“Probably, I am one of those people who are like a resilient tree, which will begin to bloom and bear fruit regardless of the soil in which it is planted.” —Matveyeva