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Ruthenian Bible

Skaryna and Czechia. The Ruthenian Bible / Ilya Lemeskin, Petr Voyt

Skaryna had been publishing the Old Testament in separate parts in Prague since 1517. The exact number of the published volumes is unknown. While he might even have published the whole of the Scripture, only 23 books survive to this day. It is hard to guess whether this publishing project was completed, since Skaryna did not keep to the accustomed order of the Books of the Bible. He published separate parts not in order from from Aleph to Tav, but according to how labour-intensive was the publication of every part, depending on the work of artists, engravers, typesetters, and printers. It is believed that Skaryna had completed the translation of the entire Old Testament before its publication.

The Ruthenian Bible starts with the Book of Psalms, since this part of the Old Testament was most in use. Moreover, Skaryna‘s Book of Psalms, which came out on 6 VIII 1517, differs visually from the other books of the Ruthenian Bible. It is smaller in size: a leaf consists of 20 lines, and each line consists of 34–38 letters. The later books have leaves consisting of 22 lines, 44–48 letters each. The more subdued Book of Psalms makes do with only two wood engravings, created by the so-called “Master of the New Testament“ (Mistr Nového zákona).

Based on the information given in colophons (at the end of each publication):


6 VIII 1517 Psalms (142 ff.)

10 IX 1517 Job (52 ff.)

6 X 1517 Proverbs (48 ff.)

5 XII 1517 Sirach (82 ff.)

2 I 1518 Kohelet (18 ff.)

9 I 1518 Song of Songs (12 ff.)

19 I 1518 Wisdom (32 ff.)

10 VIII 1518 four Kings (242 ff.)

20 XII 1518 Joshua (48 ff.)

9 II 1519 Judith (26 ff.)

15 XII 1519 Judges (48 ff.)


Judging from the colophons, the following books came out in 1519, in an unknown order: Ruth (8 ff.), Esther (26 ff.) Lamentations (12 ff.), Daniel (40 ff.), Genesis (94 ff.), and Deuteronomy (66 ff.). The other parts of the PentateuchExodus (76 ff.), Leviticus (54 ff.), and Numbers (74 ff.) – are not dated; as a continuation of Genesis, they, most probably, came out in 1519 and (or) 1520.

In the prefaces to the Ruthenian Bible, Skaryna referred to a great many more books translated by him. Judging by this, it must be that three to four tenth of all the text of the Ruthenian Bible has not survived to our days. The complete corpus would have included five more parts: Chronicles, Ezra, Tobit, Maccabees, and sixteen books of Prophets.

In 1517–1519, the Ruthenian Bible was being published at an increasingly rapid pace: in 1517, there were published 324 leaves; in 1518, 352; and in 1519, from 254 to 524. At this rate Skaryna would have completed his project by the end of 1521. The often-expressed opinion that Skaryna ceased his publishing operations due to the absence of funding and returned to Vilnius as early as in 1519, has little basis. The common title page and the common preface printed in 1519 suggests that the publisher had firm intentions of publishing the entire of the Old Testament. He would have been excellently prepared for this work, since he more than once mentioned other parts for the Ruthenian Bible he had prepared for publication. Therefore, the next period of Skaryna‘s publishing activities, that of Vilnius, must have started no earlier than the beginning of 1522. Before that, he would have had enough time to carry out the whole of his grand design.

This is further suggested by the existence of handwritten, apparently unprinted, copies of some books of the Ruthenian Bible. For instance, in 1569, the Ruthenian Bible was copied by hand by a man called Luka from Ternopil. His transcript, which, unfortunately, perished in Warsaw in 1944, included texts, of which printed versions are unknown today: two books of Chronicles, four of Ezra and Tobit. Another important copy was handwritten in 1575–1577 by Dmytro of Zinkiv (one part of his manuscript is kept in Lviv, the other, in St. Petersburg). It contains not only the texts of well-known Skaryna‘s publications, but also the books of Chronicles, Ezra, Tobit, Prophets and Maccabees (including even Skaryna‘s prefaces). Since new discoveries are still made once in a while, it may be reasonably expected that the number of Skaryna‘s books published in Prague in 1517–1521 will be growing.

The books published by the Catholic Skaryna were intended for the Orthodoxes of the GDL. This is obvious from the Book of Psalms, which contains 150 psalms grouped into 20 chapters as it is customary for the Eastern Church, as well as the additional Psalm 151. Skaryna‘s Old Testament is based on the traditional text of the Bible in Church Slavonic, clearly influenced by the Ruthenian language. Ruthenian elements occur more often in the prefaces and the concluding remarks.

Skaryna‘s translation of the Ruthenian Bible was mostly based on a Venetian edition of the Holy Scripture published in 1506 in Czech, Biblij Cžeská w Benátkach tissťená (Venice: Petr Liechtenstein, 12 V 1506). It had been translated from the Vulgate by the moderate post-Hussites. By virtue of its high polygraphic quality and the excellent language of the translation, this Bible, for a long time, had been used by more than just the Protestants.

Having studied liberal arts in Cracow, and having received the Doctor of Medicine degree from the University of Padua, Skaryna was very well-versed in the book culture of his age. He successfully grafted the Italian canon of the Renaissance book onto the several-century-long tradition of GDL literature. Skaryna is the author of all the grand (textual, metatextual, typographic and artistic) construction of the Ruthenian Holy Scripture.

When considering the Ruthenian Bible, it is best to view it as a whole, since in Skaryna‘s publications, there is no such a small thing that he would not have scrupulously thought out. Shall we look into the beautiful, easily read Skarynian fonts? Depending on the functional purpose of the texts, font size is conveniently variable. His books are very comfortable to read: the main text is pleasantly different from the comments, headings, footnotes explaining the content, etc. In those times, it was not taken for granted. For the reader‘s convenience, Skaryna numbered the leaves – nobody had done it before him in the books printed in Cyrillic. The “text ornamentation“ is important as well – it is served by the gallery of as many as 108 initials designed by two artists, their hands guided by Skaryna himself. The concept of the Renaissance book is manifested by the decoration of the book: tasteful and playful endpieces, vignettes and borders. This list would not have been complete without the cycle of narrative illustrations and the portrait of the publisher. Here, as elsewhere in Skaryna‘s publications, everything clearly reflects his ideas and his concept of the book.

According to some book scientists, the Ruthenian Bible, intended for the GDL‘s readership, marks a separate period in the history of the Bohemian book. It certainly elevated the book culture in Bohemia to a higher level. Skaryna‘s publications of 1517–1519 are justly hailed as significant monuments of Bohemica (významná bohemikální památka). Book historians accord them an exceptional place between the above-mentioned Venetian Bible and the so-called Severyn Bible (Biblij Cžeska w starem miestije Prazskem wytisstiena, Praha: Pavel Severýn z Kapí Hory, 5 V 1529). The period of Czech biblical illustration art associated with Skaryna is known for a much greater narrativity and realism of the image. Skaryna‘s works also propelled the publishing of sacral literature towards the secularization of the biblical illustration. A good instance is the wood engraving “The Creation of the World“(1519): a strictly canonical picture of the fourth day of the creation here includes a personal stroke characteristic for the Skarynian Bible: a young moon against a backdrop of the sun.

The corpus of illustrations of the Ruthenian Bible is famous because of its portrait of Skaryna, a wood engraving in a volume published in 1517. A portrait illustration of the publisher, a private individual, was an unprecedented fact in the artistic design of a Bible. It must have expressed the self-respect of Skaryna as an exceptional Renaissance character. Incidentally, the figure of the publisher may also be glimpsed in another illustration, in the Book of Wisdom printed in 1518. There the artist freely interpreted an engraving by Albrecht Dürer from the Apocalypse, “St John’s Vision of the Seven Candlesticks“. The iconographic scene with Christ Pantocrator features John the Apostle as a kneeling youth. He wears a scholar‘s mantle, and his face resembles Skaryna‘s.

The Ruthenian Bible has other familiar faces, of whom the ones that should be mentioned first are European rulers. As their portraits by various artists survive to these days in great abundance, it is easy to identify them. The  illustration “Moses Facing His People“, dated from 1519, features a row of Bohemian kings in the front lines of the chosen people, in a chronological order from right to left: George of Poděbrady (Jiří z Poděbrad, *23 IV 1420–†23 III 1471), Vladislaus II of Hungary (Vladislav II Jagellonský, *1 III 1456–†13 III 1516) ir Louis II of Hungary (Ludvík II Jagellonský, *1 VII 1506–†29 VIII 1526). Vladislaus II is also easily recognizable in a different illustration, “Solomon Talking with the Queen of Sheba“ (10 VIII 1518). Another dignitary shown in this illustration is the High Chancellor of the Kingdom of Bohemia, Ladislaus of Šternberk (Ladislav ze Šternberka na Bechyni, *1480–†1521), pictured standing between Solomon, i.e. Vladislaus II, and the Queen of Sheba. The very same Vladislaus and his son Louis are pictured in another illustration, “The Judgement of Solomon“ (6 X 1517): the father is shown standing in the centre of the engraving (the very same Czech chancellor looming behind his back), and the son, as the wise Solomon, sitting on the throne. In yet another scene, “The Anointing of David“ (10 VIII 1518), Louis as David is pictured kneeling, while Samuel is blessing him. The latter‘s face bears resemblance to Pope Julius II.

The pages of the Ruthenian Bible still harbour many intriguing mysteries, waiting for the attention of observant researchers not only to solve them, but also to bring this little-known monument of the sacral literature of the GDL and Bohemia closer to our days.