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Old Russian manuscript Gospels of the 12th - 17th centt. and their 19th-century copies
Old Russian manuscripts of vocal music
Bindings and applied covers of old Russian Altar Gospels
Descriptions of the manuscripts

Bindings and Applied Covers of Old Russian Altar Gospels

A binding is an essential part of a book-codex, that is used to protect it. Bindings of medieval manuscrips are often interesting monuments of craftsmanship or even works of art. Some such examples (no. 60-64) make up a small separate section of the exhibition.

A typical old Russian binding consisted of wooden boards and a spine, covered with leather (or cloth), which was folded over the edges of the boards and secured on the inner face of the boards. A binding certainly has clasps in order to hold the book shut and thus avoid distortion of the parchment of the text block or mechanical damage of the paper. The majority of bindings were decorated with stamping, which first appeared in Russia in the late 14th - early 15 centuries. Stamping can be blind or highlighted by gold or selver.

The outside of the binding was generally fitted with protective-decorative objects of metal. There were a wide variety of metal furniture: bosses, corner pieces, centre pieces etc. They provided both decoration for the book and protection for stamped leather or expensive cloth of the binding against wear and tear.

Bindings of Altar Gospels were often contained in elaborate applied covers made of thin leaves of gold, silver, gilt or silver-plated copper. They were set onto the boards of a binding. Applied covers were masterpieces of jeweller's art, adorned with embossing, niello, enamel, pearls, stones. Designs on the applied covers contributed to revealing a ritual role of the Gospel during religious serices: scenes of the Crucifixion and the Harrowing of Hell as reminders of the expiatory sacrifice were generally placed in the centre, and in the corners were figures of the four Evangelists. The Gospel was used in many religious ceremonies. It was carried in procession from the Holy Table during the Little Entrance (the Entrance with the Gospel Book) at Divine Liturgy. A blessing may be made with the Gospel Book (when the priest, facing east, made the sign of the cross with the Gospel in his hands). The Gospel was kept in a central place on the altar, representing Jesus the Christ resurrected from the dead. Such the great significance of the Gospel predetermined the presence of sacred images on the Gospel's covers.

Among exhibits are applied covers of bindings of three Gospels from the collection of St Sophia's Cathedral in Novgorod: two composite applied covers over the binding cloth (no. 62, 64) and one applied cover with onlaid panels set onto a metal basma (the ornamental pattern) background (no. 63).

Other methods of decoration of Altar Gospel Book's bindings such painting were employed rather seldom. A layer of leucos (the ground) was applied to the upper surface of a Gospel binding as the base for tempera or oils. The close book with the coloured front cover turned into an icon. A picture on the cover usually showed the Deesis: a depiction of Christ in Majesty, holding the Gospel Book, between the Virgin Mary and St John the Baptist (no. 60). Other designs, appeared as immitation of the composition of metal plaques with four corner pieces and one centre piece, were scenes featuring the Crucifixion and figures of the four Evangelists (no. 61).

From details of the binding structure, the method of attachment of the boards, the form of the spine, the type of decoration we can date the binding rather accurately. During use of the book, its original protective binding may become worn-out and be removed and replaced. That is why the dates of the creation of the book, the binding and its decoration are often very different from each other. Thus the codex (no. 60) was produced in the middle of the 16th century, it still has a contemporary binding. However, painting, decorating the upper cover, is quite new, it dates from the first half of the 19th century. The metal cover for it can be commissioned far later than the book was created (no. 64).

C. Krushelnitskaya, I. Solov'eva

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© The National Library of Russia, 2007