Sacred Lviv: The Multicultural Capital of Ukraine

  • Sacred Lviv: The Multicultural Capital of Ukraine
  • Sacred Lviv: The Multicultural Capital of Ukraine
  • Sacred Lviv: The Multicultural Capital of Ukraine
Issue 77, March 2015.

Sacred Lviv: The Multicultural Capital of Ukraine

Given the multitude of monikers the city has been known as – Leopolis, Lemberg, Lwow, Lvov, and now proudly as Ukrainian Lviv – it should be no surprise that the Western Ukrainian capital is known for its multicultural nature. Located, as it were, on an important east-west trade route, as well as on the fault line between Western- and Eastern-rite Christianity, the city has for most of its existence been the home to over 100 diverse ethnic and national groups, all of which have made a distinctive mark on the city’s history and current modern appearance. Ruled over the centuries at times by Ruthenian princes, Austrian emperors, and Polish kings, Lviv has become famous for its multicultural and multi-religious character. One needs to look no further than Lviv’s wonderful religious architecture to see the impact that these myriad cultures have brought to the city. From the Gothic architecture of the Polish Roman Catholic church, to the beautiful blended architecture of the Armenian Cathedral, to the Renaissance stylings of the UNESCO-recognized Golden Rose Synagogue, to the billowing Byzantine basilicas of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic St. George’s Cathedral, to even any of Lviv’s many marvellous cemeteries, a trip through “Sacred Lviv” has become one of the single, most attractive tourist tours for any guest of the city to understand the history and cosmopolitan nature of the Multicultural Capital of Ukraine.

Reflective of this multicultural character, Lviv is renowned for being the home to many different religious groups. The Western Ukrainian capital has seen Catholic and Greek Orthodox worshipers live harmoniously with Jewish and other religious groups for centuries. This unique blend of religion and culture is clearly reflected in the city’s architecture, as each church, temple, synagogue, and cathedral has employed its own unique architectural style. Some of Ukraine’s oldest churches can be found in the ‘Lion City’ and, mercifully, the city’s historic centre suffered only limited damage during WWII. On the other hand, the war brought about an abrupt end to Lviv’s mixed Polish/Jewish/Ukrainian character. The city acquired its predominantly Ukrainian identity under Soviet rule and has, since the 1980s, emerged as one of independent Ukraine’s most culturally vibrant cities.

Touring Sacred Lviv: What to See

While any good guidebook or travel website will offer a multitude of choices to touring “Sacred Lviv”, we offer only a few of the finest examples of the different cultures and religions that have made our city so exceptional. What makes “Sacred Lviv” so unique is that Leopolitan churches are fine examples of the diffusion and assimilation of the artistic phenomena of Latin and Byzantine cultures. Let’s begin our tour at the Latin Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Constructed in 1344 by King Kazmir the Great, by 1361, on the King’s request, Pope Urban allowed the foundation of a Latin Archeparchy in Lviv. For centuries the cathedral has been changing its looks, so that one can study Lviv’s history just by judging the building’s different appearances over time. In June 2001, the Latin Cathedral was visited by Pope John Paul II. The event was eternalized on a memorial board build right into the cathedral’s walls.

Next on our list is the Armenian Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, known more commonly as the Armenian Cathedral. This Armenian-Gregorian episcopate was founded in 1362, shortly after the completion of the Latin Cathedral. The construction of the cathedral was financed by wealthy Armenia merchants that had emigrated from Crimea. Several famous Polish architects and painters, including Franciszek Monczynski and Jan Henryk Rosen, were involved in the cathedral’s many reconstructions and restorations.

The Jewish Golden Rose Synagogue was erected in 1582 in a courtyard on today’s Fedorov St. Its wonderful Gothic vaults and beautiful Renaissance decorations were, like other Leopolitan synagogues, destroyed by the Nazis during World War II. Presently all that remains at the site is a small plaque commemorating the once grand building. The ruins were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998 and there are hopes that the building will once again be restored to its previous grandeur.

A not-to-miss site for any guest of the city if they are looking to learn about Ukrainian history is Ukraine’s primary Greek Catholic church – St. George’s Cathedral. Built between 1744 – 1761 on the grounds of the old St. George Church and monastery, the temple is one of Lviv’s most important cultural and historical monuments and holds a predominant position in Ukraine’s religious and cultural characters. Completely restored in 1996, the cathedral’s grounds are still undergoing restoration work. Especially notable are the cathedral’s crypt and remarkable bell tower, featuring the oldest bell in Ukraine (cast in 1341).

Other popular “Sacred Lviv” tourist destinations in Lviv include special cemeteries, where many tombstones have artistic and historical value and are genuine works of art. One only needs to look at the expanding promotion of Lviv’s sacred sites amongst guidebooks and travel literature to see just how integral they have become in Lviv’s lucrative tourism industry.

Sacred Lviv as a Learning Opportunity

Another element that lends itself to the popularity of Lviv’s sacred sites is their relationship with key historical events. Indeed, each of Lviv’s major churches, temples, synagogues, and cemeteries can bear witness to the city’s long and storied past. This may be especially true for religious Poles, as many sites have taken on a symbolic dimension, perhaps even more patriotic than religious. Once ignored, depreciated, or devastated under communism, the sacred relics now serve as a testament to the Polish cultural heritage of the city, and serve as a source of pride for the small Polish community in the city. Other nationalities also visit Lviv on “heritage” trips, including an increasing amount of Jewish and Armenian visitors. They visit Lviv and Galicia to trace the footsteps of their ancestors, and of their nations’ storied histories.

It should also be noted that the presence of Lviv’s sacred sites, and their religious lives, have often taken on political overtones. For example, Russian invaders used Orthodox churches as part of a policy to Russify occupied lands, just as Roman Catholic and Greek Catholic churches served as a symbol of national identity for Poles and Ukrainians, respectively.

From Sacred to Secular – The Transformation of Lviv’s Religious Landscape

Lviv is one of those valuable examples of a city where one can easily identify the factors influencing the functions of sacred sites and trace the transformation of these functions with regards to varying political and cultural conditions. Places of worship in Lviv reflect not only the realities of each period of history, but also their Eastern European idiosyncrasies.  Certainly, the religious function was dominant at these sacred sites for most of Lviv’s history. They were created and developed as centres of worship where religious ceremonies were practiced and where believers had a defined place to meet their spiritual needs. As many separate ethnicities and denominations were a staple of Leopolitan life since its early days as a city, it has maintained a favourable atmosphere of spiritual acceptance and religious freedom. As a result, not only the major religions, but also religious minorities have had the opportunity to practice their religion and create sacred art.

Among the more recent important functions of Lviv’s sacred sites is their importance so far as tourism is concerned. Developing soon after Ukraine’s independence in the early 1990s, as the country adjusted its attitude towards religion and opened its doors to foreign, non-Soviet travellers, Leopolitan sacred sites were among the first ‘must see’ stops in all of Western Ukraine. Churches of all different faiths returned to their owners and were gradually renovated to regain both their spiritual and artistic importance. Particularly attractive for Western tourists are churches that allow visitors to explore the characteristic art and distinctive rituals of Eastern Christianity. With their inimitable architecture, rich and unusual interior design, and unique liturgy, these places of worship are among Lviv’s most sought-after tourist venues. They often offer additional attractions, such as music concerts, museums, or exhibitions to further allow guests of the city to gain a better understanding of their importance and functions.

Today, the range of functions performed by sacred sites in Lviv is broader than ever. Churches and cemeteries, which previously were saved for the realm of the sacred, have now merged with the world of the secular in the form of tourism. The uniqueness of places of worship, along with the holy spirituality attached to the sites, becomes an attraction in its own right as it allows visitors to get away from everyday life. The popularity of these sites is intensified by visitors’ desire to get to know new places. It is for these reasons that there is no doubt that Lviv’s sacred sites will not only continue to serve as among the most popular visitor destinations in the city, but will lead the way in Lviv’s bid to become Ukraine’s most attractive tourist destination.