Ostromir Gospel

Old Russian Manuscript Gospels of the 12th - 17th Centuries

Along with the adoption of Orthodox Christianity, Kievan Rus' accepted all the main Byzantine and Bulgarian achievements in the field of culture, theology, science. The best examples of books as well as techniques of their design were copied and developed by mediaeval Russian masters. Later the harmonious interaction between foreign and national arts traditions revealed itself in the style of the lettering and decoration of manuscripts, in the colour palette of miniatures, head-pieces, and initials. The richness of the old Russian manuscript tradition of the Gospel was determined by an enormous number of parish and monastic churchs, of which each had the Gospel Book a mandatory attribute of Orthodox service.

This section of the exibition consists of 24 manuscript books (no. 29-52). A large proportion of them are far-famed. For instance, there are the celebrated Milyatino and Pantaleon Gospels of Novogorod (no. 29, 30), created in the 12th-13th centuries during the period preceding the Mongol Invasion of Rus', or Pereslavl Gospel (no. 35) from the late 14th- early 15th centuries, invariably interesting to arts critics, which along with several other displayed manuscripts represent the Pre-Renaissance in Russia. The rest of codices have never been on show, they are little known even to experts (no. 46 etc.). The exhibition offers an oportunity to see manuscripts produced in diverse centers for book arts - Novogorod (no. 29, 30, 32, 43, 44), Pskov (no. 36), Moscow (no. 33, 34, 40), Pereslavl (no. 36). One of the book from the 13th century, the earliest copy of the Dialogues of Gregory Dvoeslov (Gregory the Dialogist) on Gospel (no. 31), came from south-western Russia.

The majority of the showcased Gospels survived at book repositoties of monasteries, that were the main centers for art and literature in mediaeval Russia. The National Library of Russia now houses the historic collections of the oldest mediaeval Russian monasteries and other religious institutions, preserved in their entirety. The largest and most notable are that of the Kirillo-Belozersky (no. 37-39, 41, 42) and Solovetsky (no. 44, 45, 48, 49) Monasteries, and St Sophia's Cathedral in Novgorod (no. 30, 32, 43). The latter holds manuscript books, formerly belonged to many other monasteries of north-western Russia. One of such books, the Gospel kept in the library of the Cathedral of the Dormition in Tikhvin at one time, is on view in the exhibition(no. 43).

The manuscript tradition of Gospels fell into decay in Russia in the late 17th century and ended when printed Gospels, containing the Russian-Greek translation approved by the Synod, completely replaced manuscripts in church. However, our exhibition shows three rare examples of manuscript Gospels dating from the 19th century. These handwritten books were created for the quite special purpose. In Modern Times, Gospels awoke interest of scientists, who copied the earliest codices to compare texts of manuscripts from different repositories (no. 51, 52). Artists, secular persons applied themselves to copying and decoration of Gospels, driven by religious and aesthetic motives (no. 50).

Each of the exhibited manuscripts attracts attention either through the circumstances of its creation, or through the art of writing and the richness of its decoration, or through historic facts mentioned in the records of scribes and owners. These all luxurious books demonstrate the deep veneration paid to the Holy Writ, and, first of all, to the Gospel, the sacral centre of a Christian temple, in Russia from the earliest times. The display of a precious part of the Manuscripts Department's treasures gives an idea of the rich cultural heritage, which has been kept carefully to the present day in the National Library of Russia.

O. Sapozhnikova, E. Shevchenko

© The National Library of Russia, 2007