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Preserving the Memory of Skaryna. Czechia / Ilya Lemeshkin 

The dating of Skaryna‘s first arrival in Prague should probably be moved back to 1515–1516. He would have had to procure type pieces (letter punches must have been produced abroad), decorative elements (endpieces, vignettes, initials), wood engravings depicting various biblical scenes, paper, and other materials. Moreover, until the technological process of printing the Ruthenian Bible became well established, Skaryna would have had to look for local printers and to negotiate with them, with the head of the printing operation and with the authorities (the latter might have viewed printing the Bible in an unknown alphabet with suspicion).

It is much easier to determine the dating of his second sojourn in Prague. From 22 V 1535 to 21 VII 1539, Skaryna served as royal gardener and died at the turn of 1551–1552. This most probably happened in the New Town of Prague.

This biographical information is very telling that the longest period in the life of Skaryna was spent in Czechia. He lived in Prague twice for extended periods of time. Calculations based on the colophons of his Prague publications (1517–1519) combined with documentary evidence (1535–1552) give us 20 years in total! New research is able to expand this narrow chronological frame to 24 (counting 1515–1521 and 1534–1552) and even 28 years (1512–1521, 1533–1552). Nowhere else had Skaryna been living and working for so long. He must have known Prague better than Vilnius, Cracow, Padua, Königsberg and even his native Polotsk. Naturally, the city connected with his work and destiny to this extent, must offer us numerous sites of interest.

It should be said at once that the preservation of Skaryna‘s memory in Czechia is not name-focused. Even though one would in vain look for streets, squares or schools carrying his name, essential moments of his life and activities are suitably preserved. Besides his memorial plaque and his statue, there are certain landmarks that remind us of him even now.

Skaryna is the creator of the Ruthenian Bible. The publication of the Old Testament is commemorated by the memorial plaque unveiled in the Main Yard of the National Library of the Czech Republic (Hlavní nádvoří Národní knihovny) in 1996. The library, whose territory once was the location of Charles University, and before that, of the Jesuit College (from 1556), and even before that, of a Dominican monastery (from 1227), today is known as Clementinum. The latter name is symbolic and very important, taking origin from the Chapel of St. Clement, a home to the Dominicans since 1227.

Bishop Clement, the fourth Roman Pope, was martyred in the Tauric Chersonese, i. e. on the territory of the present Crimea, in 97 (99) or 101. In January 861, the brother Saints Cyril and Methodius came to the Tauric Chersonese. The brothers found the remains of the first-century Christian martyr and had them moved first to Constantinople, and later, to the Great Moravia and Rome. There, at the turn of 867–868, Pope Adrian II received a precious gift – the relics of St. Clement brought by Cyril and Methodius. To mark this occasion, Adrian II, in early 868, blessed the translation of the Holy Scripture into the Old Slavonic, and put the books onto the altar of the Basilica of St. Mary Major (Santa Maria Maggiore). Such were the beginnings of the Slavic liturgy, to which Skaryna was to make his own contribution in the 16th century.

The memorial plaque to Skaryna is mounted in a place that does not have a direct connection to his Prague printing house. Nevertheless, the locale is appropriate. It is important not only by its connection to the greatest Czech library, but even more so by its ties to the oldest Christian cult in Great Moravia, spread here by the efforts of Sts. Cyril and Methodius. There is also another matter to consider. As Skaryna was a Catholic who published books for the Orthodoxes, the Uniate worldview may be easily perceived in his personality. It is telling that the present Church of St. Clement, located next to the memorial plaque, now belongs to the Catholics following the Greek rites.

The creator of the memorial plaque, the Belarusian sculptor Ales Dranets (Алесь Дранец) has depicted Skaryna sitting and holding the Bible. The latter carries a sentence found in Skaryna‘s books: “For the glory of God and the good teaching of people“ (богу ко чти и людем посполитым к доброму научению). The achievements of the publisher are commemorated in the inscriptions made in Belarusian and Czech: ФРАНЦИСК СКОРИНА: 1517–1519. У Старым месце Пражскiм выдатны беларускi асветнiк Францiшак Скарына выдаў свой беларускi переклад Бiблii; 1517–1519. N Starém městě Pražském vynikající běloruský vzdělanec Francišak Skaryna vydal svůj běloruský překlad Bible.

The Severyn printing house, rented by Skaryna in 1517, is about 350 meters far from the National Library. This place, where the sheets of the Ruthenian Bible were typeset, printed and dried, has been greatly changed in appearance throughout the centuries. It was particularly affected by the tragic events of 8 V 1945. During the Prague uprising, the City Hall, occupied by the Czech resistance fighters, was burned down by Nazi cannon fire. The left wing of the building was razed by the fire and torn down after the war, creating a view into a neighbouring street, in which our printing house had been located in the 16th century. The former perimeter of the demolished building now is partially marked by a small park. The printing house was in the street that earlier began at the Church of St. Nicholas. The building complex on the right side of the street has survived to our days and now is Baroque in appearance. The houses on the left side are no more. They stood too close to the ever-expanding city hall, which, in the 19th century, occupied the entire quarter.

The Severyn printing house operated in a building known, by its identification mark, as the house “At the golden half-moon“ (dům U zlatého půlměsíce). Its more exact location may be determined using the map of Prague drawn by Josef Jüttner in 1811–1815, which, among others, shows the houses not in existence anymore. The number of our house is 24. The site where it stood is now occupied by trees growing on the territory of the former neo-Gothic city hall and part of the much older medieval town. Neither this place nor the cobbled pavement of the square bear any sign that would have marked the memory of the deeds of the famous Polotskian, even though such a sign would have been meaningful not only for the descendants of the GDL, but for the Czechs themselves. Those who wish to find the location of the Severyn printing house should follow those benchmarks: it was situated across the street from the entrance into the Baroque church of St. Nicholas. No more than 40 meters down the street from the church, there is the house “At the golden goose” (dům U Zlaté husy; Mikulášská č.p. 22/8). It is across the street from here that the Ruthenian Bible was published in the 16th century.

Besides publishing the books of the Holy Scripture, i.e. working towards the healing of souls, Skaryna, doubtless, practiced medicine. This occupation would have led him to local pharmacies, of which in Prague, at that time, there was but a small number. They sold sweets, spices, medicines and, of course, various healing herbs. The merchandise included plant matter used in book printing, for example, dried galls, or cecidia, (in Czech, duběnka; in Latin, galla). Containing a great deal of tannin, they were used for producing ink. At Skaryna‘s time, a pharmacy located in the house “At the golden lily“ (dům U Zlaté lilie), only some 120 meters far from the printing house, was particularly popular. The narrow building situated in the Little Square of the Old Town (Malé náměstí 458/12), has survived to our days in excellent condition.

Skaryna as the royal gardener. One of the most handsome monuments to Skaryna stands in the part of Prague that is called Hradchany (Hradčany). The Minsk sculptor Eduard Astafyev (Эдуард Астафьев) portrays the printer as young and well-built. With his left hand he props an open book put upright on a column, while in his right hand he holds a feather gracefully. One open page has a mark characteristic for the Prague Bible, a moon and a sun; the text depicted on the other page reveals the authorship of the book: “This book was laid out by Doctor Francysk, the son of  Skaryna, from the glorious city of Polotsk“. (Книга выложена докторомъ Францискомъ Скориною сыном из славнаго града Полоцька). Skaryna is dressed in a scholar‘s mantle, his chest is decorated by another important atribute, the Vytis (Knight) of the GDL. The tall (2,3 meters) sculpture on a granite pedestal was unveiled with ceremony on 10 X 1996.

By the efforts by the same artists, the sculptor Astafyev and the architect Yury Kazakov, a stone topped by a bronze scroll was brought from Minsk and installed next to the sculpture. It carries an inscription in Belarusian and Czech: 1535–1539 у гэтых месцах працаваў каралеўскiм батанiкам выдатны беларускi гуманiст i ўсходнеславянскi першадрукар Францишак Скарына; 1535–1539 v těchto místech působil jako královský botanik významný běloruský humanista, zakladatel východoslovanského knihtisku Francisk Skorina (Francišak Skaryna) (In 1535–1539, the prominent Belarusian humanist and the first Eastern Slavic printer, Francysk Skaryna, served in this place as royal gardener).

The inscription quoted above is not exactly accurate. It states that Skaryna worked as royal gardener “in this place“, but it was not so. The royal garden is located approximately 650 m to the east, following the direction towards the castle of Prague. Between the sculpture and Skaryna‘s true work location, there is another, Presidential, garden (Produkční zahrady or Zahrady Lumbeho). It surrounds the Presidential Palace of the Czech Republic. There is no evidence as to what was here in the 16th century. Most probably, vineyards, but Skaryna clearly had nothing to do with them. The appearance of the monuments in his honour at this place has a special meaning because of the name of this area, Pohořelec, i. e. “Burned-out“. It reminds us about fires plaguing this part of the city since the olden days, among them the Great Fire, in whose flames Skaryna‘s son František died on 2 VI 1541.

The place that should be visited by every visitor of Prague interested in Skaryna is the Royal Garden of the Prague Castle (Královská zahrada). This is the largest monument and greatest tribute to Skaryna‘s genius. It may be justly stated that the garden designed and planted by him in 1535–1539 is no less momentous than the Ruthenian Bible. Still thriving after a few centuries, this fruit of Skaryna‘s knowledge and handiwork surpasses his books published in Vilnius and Prague both by its vitality and accessibility. Unlike the books, it is not stowed away on library shelves, but open to every visitor. Importantly, it was Skaryna who created the concept of the garden suitable for the location and prepared the drafts, which determined and continue to determine the development of the Royal Garden. So it may be stated without exaggeration that the nowadays visitor comes to be enveloped by Skaryna‘s spirit anywhere in the garden.

The acquaintance with the garden is best started from the Royal Summer Palace (Letohrádek královny Anny or Belvedere). Its construction started on the orders of Ferdinand I as early back as when Skaryna was gardener. The garden was designed as the continuation of the palace. The building is decorated by a multitude of various decorative elements. The outer arcade has an interesting sandstone bas-relief above the third column (some art historians single it out as the most beautiful here). This allegorical art piece depicts a love scene from everyday royal life. Some spectators will say that Anna Jagiellonica, holding a terrier on a leash with one hand, with the other extends to her husband an exotic flower, a blooming ficus or laurel. The others will think that it is Ferdinand I who offers the flower to his wife. Whatever may be true, one is undisputable: the flower has been grown by the gardener Skaryna.

The gardener‘s cottage (domek zahradníka – U Prašného mostu 50/4) is located at the other end of the garden, not far from the bridge to the Prague castle and the President‘s house. Even though it hails back to the 16th century, Skaryna would not have lived here. This brick dwelling was built in 1556, having replaced a wooden cottage that had stood at this place.  It is in the latter that Skaryna must have resided.

We should give, at the very least, a glance to the Benedictine monastery of the New Town of Prague, which is called Emmaus (or Na Slovanech). Here we will find no sculpture, memorial plaque or any other token of tribute to Skaryna, but this place must have been very important to him. In 1518, in one of the books of the Ruthenian Bible, in the wood engraving “The Siege of Jerusalem“ (Навходносор Царь Вавилонский добывает Ерусалима) he depicted this monastery with a battle on the background. The picture of the monastery suggests that, in 1517–1519, the pupil of Polotsk Bernardines must have had close connections with the Benedictines of Prague.

We would like to conclude the account of the preservation of Skaryna‘s memory in Prague by the following comments. The images of Skaryna in Prague are chronologically inconsistent: in all of them, he is portrayed as uniformly young, even though an image of an older man would be more fitting in the vicinity of the Prague Castle. The texts accompanying the monuments also have inaccuracies: the Ruthenian citizen of the GDL is called Belarusian, and the books he published are called the translation of the Bible into Belarusian. Further, Skaryna everywhere – in graphic arts, sculpture or cinema – is shown with a moustache, even though he did not have it. On a 1517 engraving, he is depicted with a shade under the nose rather than with a moustache. In fact, some art historians refer to the author of the engraving as to “the master of gentle stroke“ precisely because of his manner of depicting shade. This artist would have rendered a moustache in a different manner. Besides, another image of Skaryna (The Book of Wisdom, 19 I 1518) does not show any moustache. All this should be taken into consideration by a future artist planning a monument to Skaryna.