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Not many people are aware of the Minsk manuscripts written before the 17th century

Surviving pages from the past

Not many people are aware of the Minsk manuscripts written before the 17th century. Historian Yuri Mikulsky tells us about them.
There are those who are of the opinion that, until the 16th century, few items of art and literature were created in our country and our culture was only developing slowly. In truth, not many icons and manuscripts have survived from the Skorina times but numerous wars can be partly blamed for this. Churches, museums and archives were robbed and many cultural treasures were burnt or taken abroad. Even now, not many people are aware of the Minsk manuscripts written before the 17th century. Historian Yuri Mikulsky tells us about them. He’s also collected data on six gospels that are held to be older than the 16th century, all written or kept in Minsk. All of them are abroad now or have disappeared without trace. Only one of the gospels is kept in St. Petersburg’s Russian National Library.

15th century Minsk Gospel kept at St. Petersburg’s Russian National Library

Mstizh Gospel

Mr. Mikulsky has developed a keen interested in the fate of gospels. He explains, “This was the only service book in church and, in line with the popular custom, also registered judicial acts. It was a collection of both religious and legal texts and were often taken to courts to investigate claims.”  Archivists say that if no court cases had ever taken place, we would have never learnt of many people and events in history. Documents seldom register kind deeds; they mostly inform us of problems or disasters. Scholars learnt of one of the gospels, kept in the now destroyed Ascension Cathedral, by chance. These late 16th or early 17th century documents record that in 1502, Yelena, the daughter of Moscow’s Duke, donated the village of Trostenets (near Minsk) to the monastery. The record was registered in the gospel, covered with gold and silver. The book was later kept by city residents for some time and eventually found a home in the St. Peter and Paul Cathedral (in Nemiga Street); it was last seen there in 1778.

Historian Yuri Mikulsky near Minsk’s Basilian Monastery
The 1957 inventory of articles discovered in the Nativity of the Most Holy Mother of God Cathedral, located in Minsk’s citadel, not far from the modern Nemiga underground station, mentioned ‘the old Gospel framed in copper’. The Minsk Mother of God icon was also found there; it was donated to the city by the aforementioned Duchess Yelena. Even in 1972, the book was kept at the cathedral, covered in velvet, with a silver gilt-covered cross on the cover. A court case of two Minsk merchants in 1597 brought to light the Gospel of the ‘church of St. Kuzma and Demyan’. It became apparent that the former priest, Ivan, had erased some notes from the Gospel on church property outside the city because he had appropriated it. Nobody knows where the book went…

These stories provide us with an answer to what happened to a vast layer of the national heritage. It has actually gone nowhere. Where did book disappear? A similar mystery happened to the Gospel discovered in the 1860s on the Masyukovshchina estate (currently in the Minsk district), in the cellar of an unknown building. In 1923, the book was kept by Larisa Kuzminskaya, from Ukraine’s Kamenets-Podolsky. At that time, researcher Mikhailo Drai-Khmara became familiar with the 35 surviving pages of the manuscript. He was the last to see the rare book and even managed to publish it in 1931 in Kiev. Only two ancient rare books from Minsk’s churches have survived. One of them is known as the Mstizh Gospel among scholars; it comes from the village of Mstizh of the Borisov District. At present, it’s kept at the library of Lithuania’s Academy of Sciences, having been brought there in 1869 from Minsk. The 14th century manuscript came to Mstizh in the 16th century, taken by Minsk’s major, Vasil Lyakh. There is no information on where he took the book.

It is likely that the Gospel from the Basilian Monastery (whose stone buildings have been preserved until now between Minsk’s Svobody Square and Engels Street) boasts the most mysterious history. It seems that Duke Fiodor Tolstoy, who had a rich library, received the book from there in the early 19th century. It’s an even stranger fact that, until recently, no Belarusian scholars have studied the manuscript in detail, although its current location in St. Petersburg’s Russian National Library is known. Judging by the watermarks on it, the written document dates back to 1450-1460. Mr. Mikulsky is convinced that it’s hard to objectively speak of Belarus’ history without studying these pages. In fact, the country’s history is much richer than it might appear at first sight.

By Viktar Korbut
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