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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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