(Translated from the July 2016 issue of Foma. Here’s the link to the original Russian article)
The Ostromir Gospels is the oldest (dated) Russian book that has survived.
Time of Writing:
The main part of the book was written over a seven-month period from October 21, 1056 to May 12, 1057.
Place of Writing:
- Novgorod the Great
- A certain “Deacon Gregory.” As with icons, hand-written copies of books were not “autographed.” According to ancient tradition, any praise for the creation must always go to God. The focus must always be put on the words of the Gospels, not the person who transcribed them.
- The Novgorodian “mayor” (posadnik) Ostromir, Joseph in baptism (see my post on princely names in old Rus for more information). He was related to the Grand Prince Iz’iaslav (son of Yaroslav the Wise). As a side note, the position of “posadnik” was the most important in the city (after the prince). The “posadnik” was the right hand of the prince of the city. He had direct control over the city courts and the city’s defense.
Where is it found:
- The Russian National Library in St. Petersburg
- In 1806, Alexander I handed it over to the Imperial Library in St. Petersburg. He had found it among the personal items of Catherine II.
- Thanks to an epilogue in the manuscript (unusual for the time), scholars can exactly describe the writing of the Ostromir Gospels. Here’s an excerpt:
Glory to Thee, O Lord, Heavenly King, for You have vouchsafed me to write down this Gospel in the year 6564 (after the creation of the world –NK). I finished in the year 6565. I wrote this Gospel for the servant of God Joseph (in baptism), who is called Ostromir in the world, being a near relative of Prince Iz’iaslav. At this time, Iz’iaslav holds power both over the holdings of his father Yaroslav and his brother Volodimir. Iz’iaslav himself rules at his father’s court in Kiev. His brother’s court in Novgorod he has assigned to his near relative Ostromir…”
- This Gospel is a lectionary, which means that the readings are arranged by the daily services, not “chronologically” as you would find in most Bibles. The first reading is chapter 1, verse 1 of the Gospel of John, since that is the reading on the night of Pascha (Easter).
- The Ostromir Gospels was the main lectionary used in the Cathedral of St. Sophia in Great Novgorod. Ostromir himself intended the book “for the great consolation of the souls of the peasants.” In other words, he commissioned it to be used in the main cathedral of his city.
- Interestingly, its calendar of saints’ days (mesiatseslov) includes both Western and Eastern saints. After all, the manuscripts was commissioned not that long after the so-called “Great Schism” between the Orthodox and Catholic Churches, which, historically speaking, was not a notable political event. Its ramifications only became apparent later.
- Excerpts from the Ostromir Gospels were mandatory reading in pre-Revolutionary textbooks. In 1843, it was reprinted with an appendix that included lessons in Grammar, a glossary of terms, and a parallel Greek text.
- In 2011, UNESCO added the Ostromir Gospels to its “world heritage” list.
For those who understand Russian, here’s a handy short video with the main facts about this amazing work of art.
If you enjoyed this post, and if you want to read more about Russian traditions and culture, be sure to sign up for my Readers’ Group. As a thank you, I’ll send you two chapters of my new novel, The Garden in the Heart of the World. Let me know where to send them: