History of Things: Riddles of the 16th century gospel from the collection of the Museum of Moscow’s rare books

History of Things: Riddles of the 16th century gospel from the collection of the Museum of Moscow’s rare books
Engraving of St Matthew the Evangelist. Gospel. Vilna. Printer: Pyotr Timofeyev Mstislavets. Funded by Ivan and Zinovy Zaretsky. 30 March 1575
Follow mos.ru to learn about the creator of one of the first Russian typefaces, principles of rich design of theological works as well as the fate of the intelligentsia after the year 1917.

The main character of the new issue of the History of Things is a book that is almost 450 years old. The communion-table gospel was printed in Vilna (present-day Vilnius) in 1575 by printing pioneer Pyotr Mstislavets. It is part of the Museum of Moscow’s rare book collection and can relate both its own history and also give a brief synopsis of Russian book printing.

Not many facts about master Pyotr are known today. The nickname, Mstislavets derived from his home town of Mstsislaw (Mstislavl) in today’s Belarus (the then Grand Duchy of Lithuania). Mstislavets used to work at the Moscow Print Yard together with Ivan Fyodorov, who is traditionally named the first Russian book printer. The two published Russia’s first dated book The Apostle in 1564 as followed by two more editions of Breviary a year later. The epilogues of all the three Moscow publications list both Pyotr Mstislavets’ and Ivan Fyodorov’s names.

Later the first printers left Moscow and parted their ways. Mstislavets moved to Vilna where he established a print shop supported by rich citizens Zaretskys and Orthodox merchants Mamonichs. It was there that the communion-table gospel came out on 30 March 1575. The circulation was an estimated 1,200 books, of which nearly 110 have survived to this very day.

The communion-table gospel (a gospel placed on the church altar) contains the Four Gospels (the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) and a calendar of gospel readings. Since the book was used during religious services, its design had to meet special requirements, such as a beautiful binding, good paper and large and clear font. To bind the book, boards wrapped with expensive cloth were used. Decorations included copper and silver cover plates depicting the crucifix in the centre and four gospelers on the sides of the front cover. The gospel from the Museum of Moscow collection features raspberry-coloured velvet. The decorative cover plates were  lost.

Binding. Gospel. Vilna. Printer: Pyotr Timofeyev Mstislavets. Funded by Ivan and Zinovy Zaretsky. 30 March 1575

Working on the gospel, Pyotr Mstislavets proved himself as a skillful master in book design. The publication features good clear typeface copied from a large half uncial of Russian manuscripts (the type of Cyrillic lettering characterised by soft lines). The font Mstislavets created later served as the sample for many communion-table gospels.

The headpieces include floral elements – cones, acorns, berries and cracked pomegranates. Other decorations were full-page engravings portraying the four apostles. The framing around them are very complicated – columns supporting the vault, unusual figures of beasts and more. Western European printing of the 16th century had its influence on the master although the edition in many ways carries on the traditions of the Moscow book printing.  

The gospel from the Museum of Moscow’s rare books collection can relate its own history as well, as traced by the seals inside the book. In the 19th-early 20th centuries, the book was kept by a family of major manufacturers, public figures and benefactors Bardygins in Yegoryevsk (the then Ryazan Governorate), a town in the present-day Moscow Region. One of the family representatives, Mikhail Bardygin was a collector whose collection gradually grew into a fully-fledged museum that got the name The Museum of Old Times of Russia. It was donated to the town in 1915. Admission was free. After 1917, Bardygins moved to France and the communion-table gospel has found its way to the library of the All-Union Academy of Architecture and in 1954 – to the Museum of Moscow.

Interestingly, the writing made by one of the owners in brown ink has survived to this very day. It says: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” The author of this opening line introducing the Gospel of John is unknown.