Baroque appeared as a response to the Renaissance crisis of harmony which had exhausted itself by the time. Humanity was suddenly faced with infinity and the need to take control over new territories, so they needed a language that would go beyond the rigorous standards. In its turn, the repertoire offered by Baroque turned out to be rather limited as well, like any style born in the time of crisis. Political leaders, as well as people of art had to put up with a patchwork reality which was their home and which they were going to conquer. To make things even more difficult, there were no instruments that could help concentrate numerous resources in order to bring miscellaneous local peculiarities up to a certain standard. Neoclassicism came later as a response to this dominance of chaos.
Baroque was probably the best of all possible styles to become an ideological foundation for the Ukrainian colonization of the new steppe frontiers, and later - for the cultural missionary expansion further into the east, to Moscovia and later to Russia. The wild steppe frontier was a transitory space - a space of opportunities that was friendly only for those who could take advantage of them. Described by Voltaire and Byron, Mazepa’s horse can become a symbolic embodiment of this multifaceted process of expansion into the broad European cultural context. On the one hand, there is a horse that rushes across the vast steppe towards the infinity, and on the other hand, there is a hero, tied to the horse by fate, who finally overcomes the infinity to find a space for new opportunities.
Similarly to Baroque, the Cossacks as a phenomenon appeared as an antithesis. Now it was an antithesis to the state, and it ended up as a political paradox. The majority of former Cossack leaders would later take part in building a gigantic project of modernization, i.e. the Russian Empire. The other would oppose this movement and suffer defeat in the end. This was probably because the Cossacks were organic for the Baroque reality, but were alien to the Modern age.
The paradox is the very category that can help to decipher the architectural language of Cossack Baroque. It combines the folk and the elite, the global and the local. It is accessible, but difficult to read. It is both metaphorical and functional. It is adaptable and imposing at the same time.
Built in 1653 or 1656, Illinska Church in Subotiv can serve as an example of early Cossack Baroque. It was meant to become a shrine of the Khmelnytsky family. At the same time, it became a real monument to the hetman and his time.
Illinska Church combines in a remarkable way the functionality of fortification and the metaphor of a fortress, i.e. a Cossack stronghold in the middle of the steppe. Stylistically, it also shows some noticeable features of Polish architecture. In the first place, this is about the contrast between the black roof and the white walls. Secondly, this is about the distinctive fanciful pediment, whose silhouette bears a striking resemblance to Polish Baroque. Similarly to the state built by Khmelnytsky, the church in Subotiv was the Cossacks’ first attempt to shape reality with the help of architecture, which was still greatly influenced by the previous legacy.
After Bohdan Khmelnytsky’s death, the Cossacks began their painstaking search for efficient models of governance under the local circumstances. In the wake of major political and social commotions, it was hetman Ivan Mazepa who managed to make the most effective use of all available instruments in order to concentrate his power as hetman, ensure the independence of his status, and turn the Cossacks into a leading social group. Now, they were able not only to copy, adapt, and follow others, but also to shape their own project of modernization. The architecture of the Mazepa period shows the first attempts to shift from mere functionality to a more hybrid style, which was vividly displayed in Chernihiv Collegium.
Functionally, Chernihiv Collegium served the purpose of education and enlightenment, but structurally, it remained an exclusive institution. The predominant number of its students were representatives of Cossack nobility and wealthy bourgeoisie. Like any other collegium, it conserved knowledge rather than spread it.
The volume of the building – a little atecnonic, heavy, and monolithic, contrasts with the elaborate decor, which is still quite raw though. But the details give away genuineness and innocence. Mazepa Baroque remains paradoxical. It is not yet an elevated style practiced by professional architects. It looks more like a piece of work made by a team of artisans. At the same time, the sophisticated and original form of the tower drum testifies to the ongoing search for the authentic creative approach instead of habitual copying.
Despite its ability to synthesize things, Mazepa Baroque was still incapable of setting terms and conditions. It immediately absorbed all the details that were crucial for the contemporary Cossack Hetmanate. Mazepa’s project of modernization was still deeply rooted in the local context.
At the same time, Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Cathedral in Kozelets was a real victory of the esthetic paradigm over the practical one. Built in 1752-1763, the cathedral was commissioned by the Razumovsky family, and two famous Ukrainian architects of the time took part in its erection – Andriy Kvasov and Ivan Hryhorovych-Barsky. The cathedral in Kozelets is already a sample of “elevated” architecture and product of professional architectural school. Form and academicism take over naive searching.
In a way, the location and proportions of the cathedral foreshadow Neoclassicism, i.e. the style that would soon overtake Baroque. It dominates the rural landscape and stands out against the skyline. However, if we take a closer look, we can see that it still maintains a dialogue with Mazepa Baroque, with its bizarre contrast between crude and naive details. Similarly to Italian Mannerism, it takes us back to thinking about architecture through the prism of corporeity. It flirts with the viewer and tells a certain story. The emotional and sensual tension mounts due to the rhythmic curvilinear contours of the apse, arched vaults and kokoshniks (semicircular, keel-like decorative elements in Orthodox churches), and reaches its climax inside the cathedral, in the altar. Allegedly crafted with the help of Rastrelli, the overwhelming iconostasis is made of richly decorated dark wood which stands in stark contrast with the ascetic white interior. In this respect, the fact that the cathedral commemorates the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary does not look incidental.
Without much doubt, the architecture of the late Cossack Hetmanate can be called “fading Baroque”. However, one should agree that the process of fading was rather striking. In order to reach the status of “elevated” style and become part of “institutional culture”, it was necessary to take part in creating an empire. The Cossack family of Razumosky, who carved out their career on the basis of favoritism, illustrate the peculiarities of the Age of Enlightenment - the Age of Reason - like nobody else. Access to resources came at a price. Elevated style in exchange for authenticity. Freedom in exchange for participation in a major project of modernization. For a certain part of Ukrainian Cossack and Orthodox Christian elite, the idea behind creating the Russian Empire was a perfect embodiment of building a modern Orthodox state with an advanced political model of the time, i.e. enlightened absolutism. According to Theophan Prokopovich – one of the ideological leaders of the empire, “common good” can be only achieved within a “regular state”, i.e. a centralized absolute monarchy. In exchange for personal intellectual resources, they obtained a legitimate status and access to resources.
Nevertheless, this type of state did not tolerate a different opinion, especially when it came to politics and ideology. So, taking part in empire creation, the Ukrainian elite was bound to lose their identity and consequently their political independence as well. Architecturally speaking, the end of independence meant also the end of Cossack Baroque.
Being Baroque in its essence, the Cossackdom was doomed either to death or to conforming to the rigid framework of the empire. The Rozumoskys chose the latter, which let Cossack Baroque finish its evolution in a logical way. The academic absorbs the local. As it was becoming an elevated style, the local Baroque ceased to be Cossack.
According to one of the versions, the word “baroque” means a pearl of irregular shape. Empires set their hands on these pearls in order to make them smooth and uniform.