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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

Shevchenko and the Peresopnytsia Gospels

31 May, 2011 - 00:00

This August marks the 450th anniversary of the handwritten Peresopnytsia Gospels, a symbol of Ukraine and the book upon which every president of Ukraine takes the oath of office. There is a mystic touch to this book. It has survived wars and journeys from one hiding place to another. Scribes started working on it on August 15, 1556, at the Monastery of the Holy Trinity in Iziaslav (then at Dvirets, a village in the vicinity of what is currently the center of Khmelnytsky oblast of Ukraine) and finished on August 29, 1561, at the Monastery of the Mother of God in Peresopnytsia (currently a village in Rivne raion). The book was ordered by and paid for by Princess Nastasia (Anastasia) Yuriivna Zheslavska-Holshanska (Zaslavska-Holshanska) and her daughter and her son-in-law (Yevdokia and Ivan Fedorovych Czartoryski).

After being written the book was kept at the local monastery, as evidenced by an inventory dated 1600. The monastery ceased to exist in 1630. Its owner, Prince Nicholas Czartoryski, was a Roman Catholic. He asked Sigismund III Vasa to place the monastery under the jurisdiction of the Jesuit College of Klewan. The Polish king promptly issued an edict ordering the monastery to surrender all its property to the Jesuits, thus including the Peresopnytsia Gospels.

After that the book seemed to have vanished into thin air, only to reappear in central Ukraine, in the 18th century. It ended up in the hands of Hetman Ivan Mazepa. In 1701, he presented it to the cathedral built in Pereiaslav with his money. There is a deed of gift duly entered into the book, dated April 17, 1701.

This book was stored at the cathedral for almost a hundred years and then found itself transferred to the seminary of Pereiaslav where it was discovered by a zealous archivist named Yosif Bodiansky who wrote a feature carried by the fifth issue of the government-run “Journal of the Ministry of Public Education” in 1838.

Taras Shevchenko must have had an opportunity to acquaint himself with the Peresopnytsia Gospels toward the end of 1845, whilst visiting Pereiaslav.

Shevchenko first visited Pereiaslav in mid-August 1845, where he was welcomed by Andrii Kozachkivsky, an old friend, medical practitioner, and son of the local seminary’s rector. (He had first studied at the seminary, then graduated from St. Petersburg’s Medical Academy, served as MO on Baltic Fleet payroll before meeting Shevchenko in 1841 and falling in love with his verse; after a fling with poetry but quickly realized he wasn’t good enough; he was also familiar with Bodiansky, so he may well have attracted the scholar’s attention to the Peresopnytsia Gospels.)

Shevchenko traveled with Kozachkivsky for about two weeks, acquainting himself with the town and suburbs, painting the Churches of the Protective Veil, St. Michael, Ascension, and other historic sites. In September-October, Shevchenko visited his homeland in the vicinity of Kaniv, as well as Myrhorod, Lubny, and other places in central Ukraine.

He visited Kozachkivsky in Pereiaslav again in early November 1845 — a very fruitful fall during which he wrote a number of his major poems, including The Heretic, The Blind Man, The Hired Girl, and The Great Mound. He also did quite a bit of painting.

After graduating from St. Petersburg Academy of Arts in August, Shevchenko established contact with the Kyiv Archaeological Commission. The latter started working hard in March 1845, under the personal supervision of Kyiv Governor General Dmitri Bibikov. The commission was presided over by Nikolai E. Pisarev. They were state-funded and their main task was to find and study historic sites of Old Rus’ in the Kyiv, Podilia, and Volyn gubernias.

That task was also clearly ideological as they had to work in strict accordance with the Russian imperial policy, considering that Polish szlachta (nobility) Roman Catholic aristocrats were still predominant in the gubernias that made up the Government General of Kyiv, and that they regarded Right-Bank Ukraine as a territory under their control. Russia’s ideological structures, including the Kyiv Archaeological Commission, were tasked with making the Russian empire’s claims to that territory clear, convincing the populace that it had always been dominated and controlled by “Great Russia,” and that even their Eastern Orthodox faith came from it. Thus they denied the Polish szlachta the right to control that territory.

Despite Moscow’s imperial policy, the commission performed adequately in many respects, including those of the utmost importance for Ukraine. More often than not, its findings turned out to be more pro-Ukrainian than pro-Russian, and the commission proved to be a reliable ally to the then maturing national liberation movement in Ukraine. This was one of few cases in which Russia’s power structures worked, albeit partially, for the Ukrainian Idea.

Shevchenko must have been assigned a task by the Kyiv Archaeological Commission when he visited Pereiaslav and other central Ukrainian regions that fall. In 1845 the Council of the Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg decided to grant Shevchenko the title of artist. This status allowed him to sign a contract with the commission. He visited Kyiv (November 28), got some money from the commission, and was tasked with studying archaeological sites. On December 10 he was formally on the commission’s payroll.


Carrying out his mission, Shevchenko took an interest in old books on the shelves of the Pereiaslav Seminary and eventually found the Peresopnytsia Gospels. He was impressed by it, judging by the following entry in his archeological findings:

“There are two Gospels stored at this simple seminary’s library, done on parchment, in a refined, gilt-ornamented Cyrillic hand, using [India] ink and vermilion. The first one dates back to [1556]… The second Gospel, also written on parchment, appears even more refined, and it uses the Little Russian vernacular [i.e., Ukrainian, dated 1556], with inscriptions in the margins of the first [title] pages…” He then quotes from Ivan Mazepa’s deed of donation: “This book of Gospels is a gift made by His Excellency Hetman Ivan Mazepa, the commander of the Zaporozhian Host, by the grace of the Tsar of Russia, the ruler on both sides of the Dnipro, and this gift is meant for the Bishop of Pereiaslav, recipient of the Order of Saint Andrew and duly ordained and decorated by the Right Reverend Bishop Zakharii Kornilovich [on April 17, 1701].”

Shevchenko went on to write that Bodiansky had described the Peresopnytsia Gospels in detail, in the fifth issue of the Journal of the Ministry of Public Education in 1838. It is safe to assume that Shevchenko learned about the Peresopnytsia Gospels from Bodiansky, considering that they kept in touch.

In fact, his contact with that Russian scholar served Shevchenko’s benefit. Bodiansky was a Moscow University graduate (1834), majoring in philology. In 1837, Russia’s Ministry of Public Education financed his trip abroad to study Eastern and Southern literature and history. Bodiansky attended classes conducted by Pavel Jozef Safarik and studied in libraries in Prague, Vienna, and Budapest. After returning to Russia in 1842, he was granted professorship at the Moscow University’s Slavic Philology Chair. He taught the Czech, Polish, Serbian languages and literature, as well as comparative Slavic grammar. Shevchenko first met Bodiansky in February 1844, in Moscow. They next met in 1845 and corresponded. Shevchenko was thrilled by his stories from Czech history, especially by what he had to say about John Hus. He was also impressed by his scholarly works. This experience, among other things, must have inspired Shevchenko to write The Heretic (in the fall of 1845, shortly before or after Shevchenko familiarized himself with the Peresopnytsia Gospels).

Bodiansky may well have attracted his attention to the book, considering that Shevchenko refers to his article in the Journal of the Ministry of Public Education. Bodiansky knew that the book was a cultural treasure stored at the seminary of Pereiaslav, and that Shevchenko would thrilled to read it.

Archaeological records, of course, preclude creative description, and Shevchenko wasn’t an expert in the field, yet it seems worth quoting some aesthetic aspects he did put down.

He stressed the aesthetic value of Gospels, that the book was handwritten with marked talent and skillfully designed; that it used the Little Russian vernacular — i.e., Ukrainian — one of the first publications using this language. True, not all of the text was in Ukrainian. Saint Matthew’s was mostly Church Slavonic, though the rest, especially Saint Luke’s, was very much on the vernacular side. Shevchenko supported the idea of the usage of the vernacular and of raising it to a literary level. In fact, he disapproved of Hryhorii Skovoroda because he used Russian. Thus, the Peresopnytsia Gospels was a book of special value for the great Ukrainian poet.

Last but not least, Shevchenko did bother to quote the text of Ivan Mazepa’s gift deed — even if he may have done so because this text preceded that of the Peresopnytsia Gospels. My opinion is that Shevchenko had a cautious attitude toward Mazepa because you can’t find his name mentioned in any of his works, but he knew about Mazepa’s activities as a philanthropist, even as an outlawed Hetman of Ukraine, to be anathematized by the Russian Orthodox Church for decades and decades, so Shevchenko may have specially emphasized his charitable efforts.

There is something symbolic about Shevchenko starting to work with the Kyiv Archaeological Commission by first familiarizing himself with the Peresopnytsia Gospels. Though his study of the book somewhat lacks substance, it nevertheless identifies major issues.

By Petro KRALIUK, Ph.D.