Outliving Them All: Ukrainians & Lviv’s Dormition Church

By Chris Wilkinson

The majority of churches in Lviv’s Old Town seem to have one thing in common, namely that their wooden predecessors were reduced to ashes by fire. They were then rebuilt in stone, a material that could withstand both the ravages of fire and time. On multiple occasions, destruction by fire was followed by reconstruction. Later when the stone proved to be longer lasting, the churches would undergo restoration rather than rebuilding.  This was certainly the case for the Latin and Dominican Cathedrals. This was also true for the Dormition Church (Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary), but there was a notable difference. The stone one that survives today was also nearly lost to a fierce conflagration in 1627. The walls were so badly damaged that it was a minor miracle when the church escaped demolition.  The fact that the church still stands at present in the Old Town is a because of faith and devotion. The Dormition Church reflects the Ukrainian population it has served throughout the centuries in Lviv as a symbol of survival and perseverance.

Lviv's Dormition Church with the Korniakt Tower soaring above it
A view from above – Lviv’s Dormition Church with the Korniakt Tower soaring above it

The Old Believers – Ruthenians & Lviv During the Middle Ages

Many people believe that Lviv only really became a Ukrainian city following the Second World War. This was when the Soviets forced the majority Polish population out of the city. Moving them westward into lands that had been taken from Germany and would become Polonized. At the same time, tens of thousands of Ukrainians and to a much lesser extent Russians were moved into Lviv. By the late 1940s Lviv had become a majority Ukrainian city. This was only new in a modern sense, as it actually hearkened back to the first century of the city’s history. Prior to conquest by the Poles in the 14th century, Lviv had been home to eastern Slavic peoples, ancestors of today’s Ukrainians, which historically were known as Ruthenians (the term was used right up through World War I). It was only after the conquest of the Kingdom of Galicia-Volhynia by the Kingdom of Poland that large numbers of Poles and Germans, Armenians and Jews settled in the city. Prior to the conquest, a predecessor of the Dormition Church, the Most Holy Mother of God Assumption Church existed in the city. It was the presence of this church, in various forms and architectural styles through the centuries, that gave the Ukrainians a lasting foothold in the city.

Despite their marginalization, the Ruthenians did have a certain area allotted to them within the city walls that were built around Lviv following the Polish conquest. Unfortunately, this area was exceedingly small. It was known as the Ruthenian quarter, situated between the eastern city walls and Rynok Square. The most famous thoroughfare in this area was Solianykiv Street (present day Ruska Street) on which the Dormition Church still stands today. This was where Ruthenian merchants traded in salt, the community’s main economic engine. Even with the salt trade, the Ruthenians were often in desperate financial straits. For example, to build the immediate predecessor of the Dormition Church that stands on the spot today, the Ruthenian community had to solicit donations from fellow Orthodox believers abroad. A patron came forward, the Moldavian Hospodar (Lord) Alexandru Lapusnenanu, who donated the money for construction. The church is still referred to by many as the Wallachian Church, as Moldavia was then known as Wallachia (in present day Romania). Lapusnenanu also extended an invitation to Orthodox Lvivians to send young church singers for training in Greek and Serbian chants in Moldavia. The church served the community for two decades before it succumbed to fire in 1571. This led to another call for funding.

A ground level view of the Dormition Church in Lviv and the Korniakt Tower
A ground level view of the Dormition Church in Lviv and the Korniakt Tower

A Creation of the Timeless & Eternal

Patronage for yet another Dormition Church, much more elaborate than any of its predecessors, would come mostly from funds donated by the Lviv Dormition Brotherhood. It was the most powerful pro-Ruthenian organization in Lviv. The brotherhood was formed in the 15th century as an Orthodox religious association at the Dormition Church. At its height during the Renaissance, it operated with a wide degree of latitude, only answering to the Orthodox Patriarch in Constantinople. The Brotherhood oversaw the local bishops and clergy, while propagating a variety of capitalistic and charitable enterprises. It owned one of the first printing presses in Ukraine and operated schools, hospitals and even rest homes for the elderly. It provided the financial resources to build a new church that would become a hallmark of the city’s Renaissance architecture, a structure that could withstand trials by fire. The Dormition Church that was thus created and still stands today took forty years to craft out of white hewn stone. The time span of construction is irrelevant when compared to the finished product that turned out to be a timeless and eternal piece of architecture. This masterpiece is still in use and welcomes visitors today.

Interior of the Dormition Church
Interior of the Dormition Church (Credit: Wikipedia)

The design recalls traditional Ukrainian wooden churches with the structure being divided into three stories and three parts with three cupolas topped by lanterns. Reliefs frame high windows set into ultra-thick walls. Due to the height of the windows and thickness of these walls, it is believed that the church was also used as a fortification. The major donors were honored with their emblems decorating the central dome. The Chapel of the Three Baptists, adjacent to the church, is no less a feat of Renaissance style with its charismatic decorative façade. Soaring above the church and chapel is the Korniakt Tower. The entire ensemble of church, chapel and tower fuse the best of Ukrainian sacral architecture with the gloriously splendid style that exemplifies the western European Renaissance. From an architectural standpoint this is where Eastern and Western Europe merge stylistically to create an architectural feat for the ages. The Dormition Church is the cornerstone of this creation. A monument to faith that also symbolizes the Ukrainian people’s enduring presence in Lviv.

Kindred Spirits – A People, A Church, A City

Today, Lviv is known as “the most Ukrainian city in Ukraine.” For seven centuries, the city was anything but that. The power of persistence, the varying fortunes of history, and an abiding faith allowed Ukrainians to overcome innumerable obstacles, whether political, economic or environmental, to make the city truly their own. The greatest symbol of their ability to rise from the ashes, to recreate themselves and their public space stands at 7 Ruska Street. The Dormition Church is the symbolic heart and soul of the Ukrainian people’s relationship with Lviv.

Source: Europe Between East And West

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