The Peresopnytsya Gospel

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The Peresopnytsya Gospel, a magnificently decorated Ukrainian illuminated manuscript that survives from the 16th century, is a book containing the four Gospels of the New Testament (Sokolovsky, 1999). Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, regarded as the Evangelists and authors of the four Gospels, are worthy of deliberation. In particular, an analysis will be conducted of the illuminated miniatures of St. Matthew and St. Mark from the Peresopnytsya Gospel.

Before delving into a discussion of the Evangelists, it would be appropriate to have some background information about the Peresopnytysa Gospel. The Peresopnytsya Gospel is a translation from Old Church Slavonic into the vernacular Old Ukrainian language. The translation began in a town called Peresopnytsya located between Rivne and Lutsk on August 15, 1556 and was completed by August 1561. The Gospel was translated by archimandrite of the Peresopnytsia Monastery, Hryhoriy, and transcribed by a priest, Mykhailo (Sokolovsky, 1999) on to vellum (a fine grade of sheep skin).

Hryhoriy and Mykhailo risked persecution as the only allowable language of the time for religious purposes was Old Church Slavonic. The creation of the manuscript was financed by Nastasiya Yuryivna who was the mother-in-law of a prince from the Czartoryski family. The manuscript survived through many revolutions and wars. It was lost for sometime before WWII when it was given to a local museum. Eventually, it was discovered by a professor from Kyiv University. Presently, it is safely preserved at the central scientific Library in Kyiv. It is intricately decorated with red, black and gold patterns that are quite similar to Ukrainian embroidery; the floral patterns and acanthus leaves are its most prominent feature (Sokolovsky, 1999).

St. Matthew, a first century evangelist, was author of the first Gospel. He was the son of Alpheus (Mark 2:14) and a Galilean, although some mentioned that he could have been Syrian He was known as Levi by Mark and Luke, and was a Jewish tax collector at Capharnaum, which was located in Palestine; thus, he came to be the patron saint of bankers and bookkeepers. He worked for Herod Antipas, also known as Herod the Great, before he left to become a disciple of Christ (The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, 2003). St. Matthew had followed Christ to His Crucifixion, was one of the one of the few who witnessed His Resurrection in Galilee, and was present at time of His Ascension into heaven. It has been claimed that St. Matthew had preached the Gospel to the Hebrews for fifteen years, and also imparted his teachings to those of Ethiopia (south of the Caspian Sea), parts of Persia, Macedonia and Syria (Jacquier, 1911). The Gospel of St. Matthew consists of accounts from the genealogy of Jesus Christ to His Resurrection. There have been variations on the accounts of St. Matthew's death. He was believed to have died a martyr, and was either burned, stoned or beheaded. The Western (Latin) church celebrates the Evangelist's feast on September 21st, while the Eastern (Orthodox) church commemorates him on November 16th.

Many Italian Renaissance characteristics are depicted in the patterns of the miniature of St. Matthew from the Peresopnytsya Gospel (The Encyclopedia of Ukraine, 2001). The Renaissance interest in nature is clearly portrayed through the bordering of acanthus leaves and flowers, and St. Matthew's position in the outdoors, as indicated by grass in the bottom, and buildings in the background. The acanthus leaves were plants that were commonly found in the Mediterranean region, and have been used in "foliage motif from antiquity until the late 19th century" (The Grove Encyclopedia of Decorative Arts, 2006); therefore, it was also found in Renaissance art, and often symbolized immortality in the Mediterranean culture (Myths Encyclopedia, 2009). In addition to this period's interest in nature, the cherubs or angels at the top of the miniature are typical of Italian Renaissance paintings. The image of St. Matthew is illustrated in three-dimensional form and rendered quite realistically, indicating yet another feature of Renaissance art.

As opposed to the Renaissance practice of rendering the subject matter as close as possible to reality, Byzantine characteristics of painting contrasted in the sense where the artist would work in a realm of faith. Upon close observation of the miniature of St. Matthew, one would notice a figure in human form hovering above St. Matthew; this figure with a human face is symbolic of Christ's human nature, and its symbolism will be discussed in greater detail anon. There is no indication of an interior except the red draped seat that St. Matthew is sitting on with a raised platform desk and ink bottles on it, while his feet rest on a stool. This part of the indoors is mixed with the outdoors of the buildings in the background and grass in the bottom creating an abstract piece. In addition, there seems to be an emphasis of a halo around St. Matthew's head illustrated through swirls that blend into the background. Thus, the other-worldly elements of Byzantine art are present in this miniature along with the Italian Renaissance characteristics.

The early Church assigned symbols to represent each of the four Evangelists in art. The figure hovering above with a human face, worthy of mention, is a symbol often used in the iconography of St. Matthew. "The more human symbol is appropriate to the one [St. Matthew] who traces the human ancestry of Christ" (Clement, 2004). This could also be connected to his detailed account in the Gospel of Christ's sacrifice to save the world, thus depicting His human nature.

During the Renaissance, artists often portrayed their own faces onto the face of St. Luke in their works. One such example was when the Italian artist and architect, Giorgio Vasari, depicted himself as St. Luke in his fresco of St. Luke Painting the Virgin, c 1565 (Hornik et. al, 2003). Could it be possible that the illustrator(s) of the miniature of St. Matthew and the other Evangelists in the Peresopnytsya Gospel depicted himself (themselves) in the Evangelists' faces? In the article, ¬An Ancient Manuscript of Gospel Translation, Sokolovsky states, "I can't help wondering whether the illuminators depicted their friends, wives, lovers [or even themselves] on the pages of the manuscript." Sokolovsky further believes that the face of St. Matthew could represent that of Mykhailo who transcribed the beautiful letters of the manuscript. Nevertheless, there is a possibility that the face of the Evangelist could represent an individual of significance.

The miniature from the Peresopnytsya Gospel of St. Matthew, when examined closely, seems to be an illustration of the Evangelist holding a pen with a book in his left hand, while the black objects on the elevated part of his seating area could be ink pots. This could be a depiction of him recording the Word of God, and the book held in his left hand perhaps represents the Gospel written by him.

St. Mark was often identified in the Bible as John Mark who was a companion of St. Paul and St. Peter; he was also an interpreter of St. Peter whose teachings he transcribed. His mother's house in Jerusalem was a meeting place for the disciples. He accompanied his cousin, Barnabas, and Paul on a missionary journey, but Mark decided to return to Jerusalem when they reached Perga (Pamphylia). Paul was displeased, and this resulted in a quarrel with Barnabas. Barnabas and Mark ended up preaching in Cyprus (Acts 13 and 15). When Paul was taken prisoner in Rome, Mark stayed with him (Colossians 4:10), thus portraying their amity. In his writings, Peter identified Mark as a "son" showing the affection that he had for him (1 Peter 5:13). Many of St. Peter's teachings can be found in St. Mark's Gospel (The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, 2003), thus showing the closeness in companionship between St. Peter and St. Mark as well.

St. Mark did not become a follower of Christ or a Christian until after the death and Ascension of the Lord. In Rome, he was converted by St. Peter, where the Gospel of St. Mark was consequently written. The Gospel of Mark consists of a narration of Jesus Christ's life from his baptism by John the Baptist to His Resurrection. His accounts mainly focus on the last weeks of Jesus' life. Although it is the second Gospel in the Bible, it is believed that it was transcribed before the Gospel of Matthew and Luke (The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, 2003).

There have been many variations on the death of St. Mark. The "Acts" of Mark state that the Evangelist was martyred. He was believed to have established a church at Alexandria. The miracles that he performed enraged the people who bound and dragged him through the streets to death. His remains were placed in a tomb by his Christian followers. His body laid there for some time until Venetian merchants came along and stole his relics and took them to the city of Venice. He has, thus, been regarded as the patron saint of Venice, and a beautiful church, known as the Basilica of St. Mark, was built above his second burial place (Clement, 2004). St. Mark has also been identified as the patron saint of notaries (Yronwode, 1995-2003). His feast day is celebrated on April 25th (The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, 2003)In the Peresopnytsya Gospel miniature of St. Mark, his symbol of the Lion is depicted hovering above him. This is a common emblem used in devotional pieces of art to the Evangelist particularly that of the winged lion. One interpretation of assigning the Lion to St. Mark is attributed to the fact that his Gospel begins with "the voice of one crying in the wilderness" (Clement, 2004). This opening phrase refers to John the Baptist who is to prepare "the way" for the Lord. Another interpretation of the symbolism of the Lion is that it is used to represent Christ's "royal power" as the King (Burridge, 1994). There are many associations in Mark's Gospel of Jesus with a lion particularly with its characteristic action of leaping, as pointed out by Burridge. Burridge refers to Jesus as the "bounding lion" where he rushes from one undertaking to another namely proclaiming the Kingdom of God, getting together the twelve apostles, and travelling around performing miracles. Also, during the mention of the temptation in the Bible, St. Mark writes that Jesus was "with the wild beasts" (Mark 1:12).

In many mosaics and paintings, St. Mark is usually clad as a Greek bishop. The image of St. Mark in the miniature dressed in a red garment could possibly be a representation of this. Also, he is writing on what seems to be a scroll, while a bearded man clad in blue is positioned behind him. This man could possibly be a representation of St. Peter whose teachings he transcribed.

There are still Renaissance influences that can be noted in the miniature of the Peresopnytsya Gospel. For instance, the acanthus leaves that border the page remain, as well as its association with immortality, and, thus, the rendering of Mark as a saint. As well, the illustration of St. Mark in three-dimensional form is closely depicted to the human figure in reality.

Byzantine influences, however, still seem to remain in the symbolic representation of the Lion hovering above St. Mark. Also, the halos behind the Evangelist as well as the supposed St. Peter is indicative of the fact that the illustrator was working in a realm of faith, and the illuminated miniature is a representation of a higher power.

St. Luke, a gentile, was a physician probably in the ancient Greek city of Alexandria Troas. There have been accounts in St. Paul's epistles as well as those of his own that served as evidence of the extent of his medical knowledge (Easton's Bible Dictionary, 1897). As a disciple and companion of St. Paul, the Evangelist accompanied him on a few of his missionary journeys. St. Luke wrote the third and longest Gospel in the Bible; it consists of numerous events including those from Christ's birth to His Ascension. His accounts also include well known parables, such as, the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son (The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, 2003). Women have been mentioned more prominently as well (Ibid.), such as, Elizabeth (John the Baptist's mother), Mary the mother of Jesus, the poor widow who gave whatever little she had to the temple (Luke 21:1-4), and the many women healed by Jesus.

St. Luke has been regarded as the patron saint of physicians as related to his profession. He has also been known as the patron saint of painters because he was believed to have painted at least one portrait of the Virgin Mary (Clement, 2004). Another perspective centered on the fact that he was an "artist with words which perhaps was the base of the tradition that he was a painter and made at least one icon of the Blessed Virgin" (The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, 2003). Nevertheless, St. Luke was often represented painting the Virgin Mary. One example of this was a fresco from Florence by Giorgio Vasari entitled, St. Luke Painting the Virgin Mary, dated after 1565 (Lib-Art, 2009). Sokolovsky suggested that, in the Peresopnytsya Gospel, the face of St. Luke could represent the illuminator himself. The feast day of St. Luke has been celebrated on October 18th.

The Ox was attributed to St. Luke, and since, in the Old Testament, it was an animal used by priests in sacrifice, this symbolic representation was linked to the opening of St. Luke's Gospel that introduced Zechariah's priestly office. Another explanation for the Evangelist's linkage with the Ox was that he compared the sacrificial death of Christ to an ox. There was still a third association of the fatted calf, which was slaughtered upon return of the Prodigal Son, with the Ox as the emblem of St. Luke (Burridge, 1994).

Sokolovsky suggested that, in the Peresopnytsya Gospel, the financer of the creation of the manuscript, Nastasiya Yuryivna, could have been represented in the face of St. John. St. John was the son of Zebedee and brother of James the Greater. The two were fishermen by profession, and were initially followers of John the Baptist until they were called upon by Jesus, along with Peter and Andrew, to become His disciples. After some time, John returned to his profession of fishing. He was called a second time by Christ to become His follower. St. John was known to have a prominent place in the Bible as he and Peter were chosen by Christ to go to the city to prepare for the Last Supper. In addition, John was present beside Jesus at the Last Supper. The Evangelist was present at the foot of the cross upon which Christ was crucified on Calvary with the Virgin Mary and the pious women. He was also the first disciple to accept and believe in the Resurrection of Christ (Leopold, 1910). Thus, he was "the disciple whom Jesus loved" (Clement, 2004).

St. John's works included his preaching with St. Peter and his establishment of seven churches in Asia Minor. In Rome, he was captured as a prisoner and immersed in boiling oil where he miraculously survived. His persecutors accused him of diabolism, and exiled him to the Greek island of Patmos. It was on this island in the Aegean Sea where it was believed that St. John transcribed his Revelation. After his period of confinement on Patmos ended, he returned to Ephesus, an ancient Greek city in Anatolia, where he wrote his Gospel at ninety years of age (Clement, 2004). The feast day of St. John has been celebrated on December 27th (Leopold, 1910).

St. John has been symbolically represented by the Eagle signifying that his "inspiration soared to the loftiest heights, and enabled him to reach the paramount human perception of the dual nature of Jesus Christ" (Clement, 2004). This is significant in the sense that, when one reads his Gospel, it is evident that it "rises" to new heights in the first chapter. In other words, when compared to the other three Gospels in the Bible, St. John's is much more theological and scriptural in nature. The Eagle in Christianity is used to symbolize the Resurrection and renewal, and thus, Christ (Ferguson, 1961). It is quite possible that the closeness of St. John to Christ is what prompted the early Church to choose the same symbol associated with the Lord to represent the Evangelist as well.

The Peresopnytsya Gospel remains as one of the most elaborate surviving East Slavic manuscripts, and the first known example of a vernacular Old Ukrainian translation of the Holy Scripture. The Evangelists are beautifully represented in it with its Renaissance and Byzantine influences in the artwork. The intricate artistry of the miniatures could depict a great deal about each of the Evangelists where the pictures indeed are worth a thousand words.

Image of St. MatthewImage taken from Encyclopedia of Ukraine. Encyclopedia of Ukraine: Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies, 2001. 28 Nov. 2009 .

Image of St. MarkImage taken from Encyclopedia of Ukraine. Encyclopedia of Ukraine: Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies, 2001. 28 Nov. 2009 .

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