Crossing the busy road, we approached St. Michael’s Monastery over a large open paved area. The walls enclosing the monastery wore religious images painted in bright pastel colours. To get to the main building we had to walk through the gated entrance of the bell tower. Painted a fantastic shade of blue with several gleaming golden domes atop, St. Michael’s Monastery is a vibrant spectacle.
The huge building towers above you, looming up from the relatively small courtyard that surrounds it. White columns break up the bold blue exterior and gold decoration adds even more splendour to every angle. There is one large dome set in the middle of 6 smaller domes. They were all lustrous gold, the diamond detail of the surface gave a texture amidst the radiance, and each one was topped with a gold cross and a sprinkling of snow. The rich blues and yellows of the building seemed to only be enhanced by the featureless white sky, drifting languidly behind it.
Young monks in long black robes walked quickly across the courtyard; hurrying over the pale yellow paving stones they entered a small building to the right of the complex. They did not speak to each other as they walked, most just looked at their feet, their dark robes moving fluidly with each step. As the group disappeared through the door and it closed behind them, the courtyard was once again calm, with only a few people milling around. We took some photos before venturing inside the grand building.
Before the door had even properly closed behind us, we were overcome with the quiet atmosphere of the place. The room was still and noiseless, almost obtrusively so, with any sound being halted by the lack of movement in the air, dissolving almost immediately. A miniscule amount of natural light trickled in through the limited number of small windows. Instead we were bathed in the mellow flicker of countless candles. The walls were covered in frescoes or icons, their dark colours depicting various saints or happenings from the bible. Everything was adorned gold, framing everything with its intricate details and glinting spectacularly in the low, dancing light.
People were mumbling to themselves, kissing the icons and crossing themselves repeatedly – completely oblivious to the rest of the world around them, fully engrossed in their faith. As tourists, we were the minority in the building, most people were there for their devotion to god. And with more and more people entering we had one last look around, taking in the shadowy elegance and grandeur, trying to commit the details to memory (as photography of any kind was forbidden) before we retreated back through the doors and out onto the courtyard. The world outside was impossibly bright and we stood a short while, allowing our eyes to adjust to the sudden change in surroundings.
Next on our agenda – climb the bell tower! We paid for our ticket and then proceeded through a small door, inside the building we made our way through the selection of rooms displaying various items of interest and the monastery’s history. It was originally built in the early 1700’s, the outside displays the Ukrainian Baroque style while the interior is in the original Byzantine style. The cathedral was demolished by Soviet authorities in 1930, but it was reconstructed and reopened in 1999 following the Ukrainian independence in 1991. Through a large wooden door we found ourselves in a small brightly lit prayer room/chapel where a monk, once again in long black robes, was departing as we entered. Inside there were the more icons, surrounded by more gold and more flickering candles.
Up a set of wide stone steps with white-washed walls we found ourselves reaching the large square chamber of the bell tower. Archways through each wall left the space open to the elements, there was snow on the floor and the bitter wind whipped through menacingly. We found ourselves sheltering from these icy blasts behind the thick white walls until they eased off, allowing us to continue admiring the views.
Lower than many European bell towers we have trudged to the top of, St. Michael’s still offered great views over the surrounding area. It offered a different perspective of the monastery; looking down on the bright exterior we were able to take in a lot more of the building, allowing us to notice several interesting details which had previously evaded us. The bells hung motionless overhead, immense forms hanging from the ceiling, connected to cords and pullies which would make them sing when the time came. Their dull, tarnished metal surface wore engraved decorations although they appeared dark against the bright white ceiling which made the details hard to see.
Shuffling around on the tiled floor, as with every other surface in the city it had a thin layer of snow which made it very slippery, we enjoyed the views. Only when our hands started to freeze did we tear ourselves away from the views and descend back to ground level, making our way through the gate and leaving St. Michael’s Monastery.