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Tithe Church of the Virgin. 10th century

Tithe Church of the Virgin. 10th century

History of the church

The Tithe Church of the Virgin is the oldest stone church in Kyiv and all of Rus. It was built in 996 by the Grand Prince of Kyiv Volodymyr Sviatoslavych (980–1015), symbolizing the victory of Christianity in the country. In the late 10th – first third of the 11th centuries, the Tithe Church was the main political and religious centre of Rus, a centre of the establishment and spread of the new faith. In the Primary Chronicle, the church is called the Church of the Holy Virgin. It got its second name, the Tithe Church, because Prince Volodymyr gave a tithe of his income for its construction and annual maintenance. The beginning of the stone church construction is dated differently in different copies of the chronicle, 989 or 991. Volodymyr invited Greek masters to build it. Byzantine priests served in the church. It was decorated with icons, crosses, and liturgical utensils that the prince brought from Cherson.

According to the chronicle, before Volodymyr’s conversion to Christianity, the house of Christian Varangian Theodore and his son John stood on the site of the future Church of the Virgin. They were martyred for Christ by a crowd of angry Kyivans outraged by Theodore’s refusal to sacrifice his son to Perun. Thus, the chronicler hints that the church was built on the blood of the first martyrs for the faith in Rus. However, the excavations demonstrated that the church was built on the site of a 10th-century burial mound, where, according to the findings and rituals, both pagans and a few Christian Kyivans were buried. There were rich burials of representatives of the military elite among them. During the 11th century, the Tithe Church served as a tomb for princes, including its founder Prince Volodymyr (died in 1015) and his wife, the Byzantine princess Anna (died in 1011), who were buried in marble sarcophagi. It is known from written sources that Princess Olha and Volodymyr’s brothers Princes Yaropolk and Oleh were reburied in the church. In 1078, Kyivan Prince Iziaslav Yaroslavych was buried here. And in 1093, his grandson Rostyslav Mstyslavych was buried here too.

The Christian relics kept in the Tithe Church endowed it with a special sanctity. As mentioned in the chronicle, in 1007 “…the saints were brought to the Holy Virgin”. Perhaps these were the relics of the great martyr St. Clement and his disciple Phoebus who, according to legend, were taken by Volodymyr from Chersonesus. It is known that one of the altars of the church was named in honour of St. Clement. The chronicle records indicate that the cathedral was reconsecrated in 1039. The reason for this is not known for certain. During the dramatic period of princely feuds, the Tithe Church was twice looted and plundered in 1169 and 1203. The first stone church in Rus existed for two and a half centuries and was destroyed in 1240.

To date, no reliable image of the Tithe Church is known. For almost two centuries of research of its ruins, several attempts have been made to recreate its appearance. However, the poor state of preservation of the church’s remains does not provide sufficient data on its architecture. All (more than 20) available reconstructions. draw upon the plans of the church foundations based on the results of excavations by Kindratii Lokhvytskyi (1824), Mykola Yefimov (1826), Dmytro Milieiev (1908–1911), Mykhailo Karher (1938–1939), and the recent research in 2005–2011 None of the reconstructions are not satisfactory. However, they testify to the complex planning system of the cathedral and allow visualizing of its appearance in the most general terms.

The Tithe Church was a six-pillared, three-nave church with three apses, surrounded by galleries and extensions to the west, and had impressive dimensions of 41 × 34 m for the time.  The Greek masters who built and painted the Tithe Church brought to Kyiv the traditions of the Byzantine church architecture and the technique of building with plinth on cement mortar. The walls and vaults of the church were richly decorated with frescoes and mosaic compositions. Many fragments of these paintings were discovered during the excavations. The church floor looked like a carpet of small pieces of marble, smalt, and pyrophyllite and multi-colored ceramic tiles assembled in a mosaic technique. Carved details made of imported marble and local pyrophyllite were widely used in the church decoration: columns, capitals, cornices, choir parapets, and slabs. Due to the luxurious decoration and the large amount of marble, contemporaries called the Church of the Virgin “the marble”.

The recent research has shown that the church has undergone significant reconstruction throughout its existence. Some repairs were carried out in the mid-11th century. At the beginning of the 12th century, a large-scale restoration of the Tithe Church was carried out, during which the southwestern corner of the cathedral was completely rebuilt.

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3D model of the church

Study of the church

In December 1240, the Tithe Church had to become the last stronghold of the Kyivans’ defense when the city was captured by the Mongol troops led by Batu Khan. According to the legend, the church collapsed under the weight of a large number of people with their goods, who gathered in the cathedral. According to the researchers, the Tithe Church was destroyed by the Mongols with the blows of wall-breaking machines. The evidence of the tragic events is the mass graves of the dead Kyivans that were made around it. One of them was discovered in 1907 to the northeast of the church by Vikentii Khvoika.

Until the 17th century, only the southwestern corner of the ancient cathedral rose above the ground. In 1635, on behalf of Metropolitan Petro Mohyla, a new small church of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary was built, using part of the ancient walls. The new church was consecrated in 1654. In 1824, Metropolitan Yevhen Bolkhovitinov commissioned an amateur archaeologist from Kyiv, Kindratii Lokhvytskyi, to uncover the foundations of the old building. It was with this amateurish research (from the modern point of view) that the scientific study of not only the foundations of the church but also the adjacent territory of the princely citadel began. In 1826, the architect Mykola Yefimov carried out additional excavations of the site, on the basis of which he developed a plan of the 10th-century cathedral. Between 1828 and 1842, a new Tithe Church was built on the foundations of the ancient church, designed by architect Vasyl Stasov. The new building occupied only 2/3 of the area of the old structure. During this construction, the surviving remains of the ancient walls were finally destroyed. However, fate was inexorable for this building as well. In 1928, by decision of the Soviet authorities, the Stasov’s church was closed, and in 1936 it was destroyed and dismantled for bricks.

Back in 1908–1914, Dmytro Milieiev excavated the remains of the church. During this period, the eastern (apse) and northern parts of the foundations of the Tithe Church, which were not covered by the 19th-century building, were examined. The rest of the church was examined only after the demolition of the 19th-century building in 1938–1939. The excavations revealed that the foundations of the 10th century church were lost, with only a small section of masonry wall and parts of the foundations in the southwestern part of the building remaining. Based on the results of the excavations of the first half of the 20th century, Mykhailo Karher created an architectural plan of the Tithe Church, which was later laid out on the ground at the site of the church.

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The Foundation of the Tithe Church

In 2005–2011, an architectural and archaeological expedition of the Institute of Archaeology led by Hlib Ivakin re-explored the church foundations. For the first time, scholars managed to fully reveal and record the plan of the entire building at the modern scientific level, which allowed them to create a new revised plan of the remains of the church of the 10th and 12th centuries. In 2015, based on the results of the latest research, a new tracing of the foundations of this outstanding landmark of national architecture was carried out.

The remains of the foundations of the Tithe Church on the territory of the National Museum of the History of Ukraine are one of the most important archaeological sites of the national cultural and religious heritage, protected by the state and listed in the State Register of Immovable Landmarks of Ukraine.

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The Foundation of the Tithe Church The Foundation of the Tithe Church
  • Foundation trenches of the 10th century.
  • Surviving stone foundations of the 10th century.
  • Reconstruction of the foundation plan of the 10th century.
  • Repairs to the masonry of the 12th century.
  • Foundations of the 19th-century church.
  • Burials from the cemetery of the first half of the 10th century.
  • Burials in sarcophagi from the 11th-12th centuries.

Plan of the foundations of the Dyzynska Church, based on the results of excavations from 2005-2011.

Unique finds

A unique collection of antiquities discovered during archaeological excavations at various times during the 19th–21st centuries on the territory of the Tithe Church is kept in different museum institutions. The largest number of exhibits is in the National Museum of the History of Ukraine. These are building materials, details of architectural and plastic decor, fragments of fresco paintings, mosaics, floor decor, various religious and household items, etc. One of the unique items is a plinth with a trident, Volodymyr Sviatoslavovych’s princely sign. It was found in 1907 by Vikentii Khvoika during an examination of the late 10th-century palace, not far from the apses of the ancient church. Probably, the tradition of branding bricks was borrowed from Byzantium, where it was customary to put a building commissioner’s sign or monogram on construction products.

Among the iconic exhibits is also a sandstone bas-relief depicting the Mother of God with the Child. The circumstances of the discovery are unknown, but we can confidently state that the bas-relief belongs to the carved decor of the church.

Part of the church interior were also stone sarcophagi, the practice of burial in which spread with the Christianization. Fragments of such sarcophagi were discovered in different times during the church’s research. In 1826, a sarcophagus made of pyrophyllite and richly decorated with carved ornaments was found near the northern wall of the church.

During the excavations of the Tithe Church and its estate, many religious items of the 10th–13th centuries were discovered. Of particular interest are the encolpions, which are pectoral reliquary crosses. Valuable finds include a 10th-century Byzantine processional cross and a bronze bell. The latter belongs to the works of Western European masters of the second half of the 12th–13th centuries. Both artifacts can be linked to the tragic event of the destruction of the church in 1240.

It is known that during the Mongol invasion, Kyivans sought refuge in the church and took their most valuable possessions with them. The concentration of hoards of the 12th–13th centuries in the church estate is the evidence of these events. An interesting find was a cache, an underground room inside the church. At various depths under the rubble of the church, bones of people and various objects were found that could have fallen into the cache during the collapse of the church.

Currently, the National Museum of the History of Ukraine is hosting the exhibition “The Tithe Church of the Virgin: Architectural and Artistic Image.” At the exhibition, you can see more than 1,000 original items – finds from the church’s territory, imagine the church’s interior in the 10th–12th centuries, and plunge into the history of the first monumental building of Rus.

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Frequently asked questions

The church acquired its second name, Desyatynna, because Prince Volodymyr allocated a tenth of his income for its construction and annual maintenance.

After the baptism of Rus, Volodymyr the Great founded the Church of Desyatynna and introduced the first permanent tax – the tithe – for its construction. Yaroslav the Wise compiled the first codified set of Rus laws known as 'Ruska Pravda.

Before the appearance of St. Sophia Cathedral, the Desyatynna Church served as the cathedral. The first school in Rus was opened near the church. It was reconsecrated in 1039 under Yaroslav the Wise. Prince Volodymyr and his wife Anna were buried in the Desyatynna Church, and the remains of Princess Olga were transferred here from Vyshhorod.