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This hand-written book is about five hundred years old.
So many people have held it in their hands, among them famous and eminent: Hryhory Skovoroda, the Ukrainian eighteenth-century philosopher; Taras Shevchenko, the outstanding nineteenth century poet.
It was kept for a time in luxurious palaces and for a time on the dusty shelves of the archives. It became famous when on December 5, 1991, the Ukraine’s president, the first one to be elected in free elections held in the newly independent Ukraine, Leonid Kravchuk took a presidential oath with this book at his side.
The next president Leonid Kuchma did the same and received, as it were, a blessing from it.
Two in a row – one can speak of a tradition that is being established. It seems to be a very appropriate thing to do – to take an oath with one’s hand on a sacred object that has been part of Ukraine’s history for the past five hundred years.
The book we are talking about is the first translation of the Gospel into Ukrainian.
This translation is closely connected with the historical fate of Ukraine, which derives its spiritual strength from its cultural heritage.

The translation was made in a small Ukrainian town in the middle of the 16th century. The town, called Peresopnytsya, was situated between the towns of Rivne and Lutsk. Now it is a village sitting on the bank of the Stubly River, lost in the wilderness and marked only on the most detailed maps. In the early mediaeval times Peresopnytsya was a central town of a principality. It was mentioned in the old chronicles The Story of the Bygone Years several times.
We even know the exact date when the translation was begun. It was on August 15, 1556, as the opening lines of the manuscript inform us. The manuscript was lavishly decorated: black, red and gold letters, ornaments similar in patterns and design to those of Ukrainian embroidery. Illuminations and initials are mostly of typical Slavic and Byzantine kind, but some bear resemblance to the French early Gothic. The representations of the Evangelists are surrounded by floral ornament with the stylized acanthus being a dominant feature. Incidentally, the great Raphael liked this plant and its flower. In the 16th century it evidently made its way to Ukraine. Curiously enough, tomatoes, corn, potatoes were not grown in the 16th century Ukraine but the acanthus was known.
It is not known who illuminated the manuscript. It is quite clear that Renaissance and Reformation ideas were reaching the land of Ukraine. It is hardly a coincidence that new translations of the Bible were being made almost at the same time in Western Europe and in Ukraine. Luther’s translation was a major cultural and linguistical event. The 16th century saw Bible translations made in several countries. In Byelorussia, Ukraine’s neighbour, the scholar Fransisk Scorina produced his version.
The Ukrainian language of the 16th century was developed enough to have a good translation made into it, but it took a lot of personal courage to go ahead and make such a translation. It was a very responsible thing to do. The translator was archimandrite Hryhoriy and priest Mykhailo was a transcriber who wrote the translation down in beautiful letters. Now, at the end of the 20th century it is very difficult to fully understand how hard it was for the two men to bring themselves around to doing it. They risked persecution since at that time the only language the Orthodox Church allowed to be used was the Old Church Slavonic, and anyone attempting to translate the Bible into the vernacular risked being called a heretic. Hryhoriy feared he would get himself into a very big trouble, and his mind, according to his own words, was “in turmoil and muddy like the waters of the mountain rivers.” But in spite of all his anxieties, he went on with his work, praying to God to help him accomplish what he had begun. He also besought God to pardon his impertinence he showed by undertaking a task which had not been authorized by his superiors, and explained that he “started it in order to bring a better understanding of the Gospel to the all the Christians.” We learn about Hryhory’s torments and fears from the Afterword affixed to the translation by Mykhailo. They were quite daring men, the archimandrite and the priest, if they risked to translate Gospel on their own and what’s more, to express themselves so freely in the postface, giving their names.
Like with so many other historical happenings, it is not quite clear why it was in the backwater Peresopnytsya that the translation was done. It looks like it is more than just a coincidence that it was in the same very year, 1556, that Baida Vyshnevetsky founded the Cossack’s Sich (initially an armed camp, which later developed into a virtually independent autonomous political and military formation of free and unruly Cossacks) in the Khortytsya island, close the rapids in the Dnipro river. Ukraine was on a long and winding road to acquiring once again its statehood.
The translation was completed in August 1561, which was also duly written down in the postscript.
There is another name which is mentioned in it – Nastasiya Yuryivna. It was she who financed the creation of the manuscript. She must be put among many other women who have distinguished themselves in the history of Ukraine. She was the mother-in-law of a prince from the Czartoryski family whose castle was situated several miles away from Peresopnytsya. After she took the veil, she changed her name to Paraskeviya.
The mediaeval times were not as ascetic as they are sometimes pictured. Among the decorations of the manuscript you can find graceful women’s hands, pointing to the beginning of chapters, adorned with bracelets. Initials grow from the bouquets of leaves and flowers. Women’s faces grace some of the chapter endings. All of these things, and others, point to a cheerful perception of the world by those who illuminated the manuscript.
I can’t help wondering whether the illuminators depicted their friends, wives, lovers on the pages of the manuscript. I peer into the faces of the Evangelists. What if the gentle St. John has a face of Nastasiya Yuryivna? And the stern St. Mark that of Hryhoriy the translator? And the ironic Matthew that of Mykhailo the copyist? And the dreamy St. Luke has the face of the illuminator himself?
In the second half of the 16th century, the newly translated Gospel was used in the religious services in the Peresopnytsky Orthodox Monastery. In the mid-17th century the monastery went over to the Jesuits, and a hundred years later it was demolished altogether. But the Peresopnytsky Gospel survived and even acquired a status of a sacred object. When it came into possession of Hetman (Cossack military leader) Ivan Mazepa, he presented it to Voznesensky (Ascension) Cathedral in Pereyaslav, which was built with the money he donated. There is an inscription, done in Mazepa’s own hand, on the front page, dated “1701” and saying: “This Gospel has been presented to church by His Highness Prince Ivan Mazepa.” Much later the Gospel was discovered in the library of the Pereyaslavl seminary by Osyp Bodyansky, a distinguished Slavicist scholar from Moscow University (but Ukrainian by birth). His scholarly report enriched the Slavic studies and made the Slavicists aware of the new and important discovery.
In the sixties of the 19th century the seminary moved to Poltava and in 1873 the Peresopnytsky Gospel was sent to the Minister of People’s Education and Chief Procurator of the Holy Synod Duke D. Tolstoy “for him to pass judgement on it” and the minister passed it to on the Russian Emperor “for the highest inspection.” An increasing number of scholars were becoming aware of the precious document and of its importance for Slavic studies. Later it turned out that the much too generous Poltava religious authorities presented the Gospel to Grand Prince Petr Georgiyevich who claimed he was collecting things dating to the times of Peter the Great (Ivan Mazepa, a contemporary of Tsar Peter, made an inscription on it, as we have mentioned earlier, with his own hand.)
After the Grand Prince’s death in 1881, his widow on her own initiative returned the Gospel to Poltava (we must give her credit for such a noble thing to do). The manuscript survived wars and revolutions and the atheistic Soviet times. Shortly before the Second World War, it was given to a local historical museum for safe keeping. When it became clear that the Nazi advance could not be stopped, the manuscript was “evacuated” to the east of the country where all the traces of it were lost for some time. Several years after the war, it was accidentally discovered by Kyiv University professor Serhiy Maslov in the book depository of the Kyiv Pechersk Lavra Monastery. He went out of his way to have it given to a scientific library. Eventually it was deposited at the Central Scientific Library in Kyiv.
On December 5, 1991, it was taken in an armoured car to the building of Verkhovna Rada (parliament) where the ceremony of swearing the president into office took place (incidentally, the Gospel was insured for 6.5 million US dollars). Since that time the manuscript has acquired a status of Ukraine’s sacred object.

By Valentyn Sokolovsky
Photo by Yuri BUSLENKO

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