Origins (B)

Far from the roots of the Christian faith, the Russian peoples wanted something they could touch and venerate. Icons filled a void, but as well the art of the icon, there was the art of the book.

Ostromir Gospel.

Ostromir Gospel.

The Ostromir Gospel was created in 1056, less than seventy years after the conversion of Old Russia. This is the oldest surviving Russian book. The illustrations range from impish grotesques worthy of the Gothic tradition to beautiful visions of saints wrapped in patterned gold. But it’s the text of books such as this one, written in subtle calligraphy, that was significant. At a stroke, the script removed one of the biggest obstacles to the complete conversion of the peoples of the Kievan empire. The Bible cannot be taught unless it can be transcribed into one’s own language, and that was a problem in Kievan Rus, as they had no written language of their own. The Kievans appealed to Byzantine scholars for help, and the result was a wonderful new script now known as Cyrillic.

Ostromir Gospel.

The invention of Cyrillic marks the beginning of Russian literary tradition, but the script itself deserves recognition as a work of art. The scholars who created Cyrillic based it on their own language, Greek, but they added symbolic shapes based on circles and triangles and crosses, all symbols loaded with Christian significance.

With the help of Bibles and books like the Ostromir Gospel, by the beginning of the thirteenth century, a rich Christian culture had taken root. But as soon as it was established, it was under threat. In 1237, a great army of marauders advanced into Kievan Rus from the far east. They looted and burned churches, destroying Bibles and icons. The Mongols were a warrior race driven by power and acquisition. Art was not a currency they understood, so unless they could melt it down for gold, they destroyed it.

Archangel Gospel.

 [From Andrew Graham-Dixon’s The Art of Russia, BBC.]

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