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The Lectionary of St Petersburg
A golden jewel of Byzantine art
St. Petersburg, National Library of Russia, Codex gr. 21, 21a, Trabzon, 2nd half of the 10th century



Further Pictures


The Gospel Lectionary of Saint Petersburg, also called Gospel Lectionary of Trebizond, is considered a true jewel of Byzantine art. It is a mysterious manuscript with en eventful history which was long kept in Trebizond, at the interface between two cultures on the rims of the Black Sea, the Byzantine and the Osman, through the troubled ages of the crusades and Ottoman conquests.
The ”Golden Gospels”, as it was also called for its rich gold embellishment, dates back to the 2nd half of the 10th century. Commissioned by an unknown patron, the rich use of gold and valuable craftsmanship indicate that it was made for a high ranking personality.
In 1223, it was presented as a votive gift to the Virgin Mary by Andronikos Gidon in a cathedral which bore the name Gold-Headed Virgin where it formed an integral part of Orthodox liturgy until the middle of the 15th century.
The Gospel Lectionary is valued above all for the great artistic quality of its miniatures. They are dispersed over nearly all the pages of the codex and illustrate individual episodes of the Gospels. The text, however, is written in Greek and is deserving great attention, as it is very old and grammatically astonishingly exact.

A precious treasure of Byzantine art

The manuscript contains a total of 16 miniatures painted throughout in tempera on a golden ground to enhance their luminosity. The decorative apparatus is the work of several painters and displays both clear oriental influences and a strong tendency to classicism. In line with the tradition of book illumination in the 10th century, the decoration contains a portrait of John the Evangelist in the classical style: John is presented as a classical philosopher, wearing a toga, and holding a scroll in his hands (folio 1r).
The text is written in pale blue ink in liturgical uncial, a form of majuscule used in the 10th century. Some initials are especially highlighted through clear enlargement and the use of gold, cinnabar, blue and green. Neume notation was added at a later stage in a bright red colour.
As the Gospel Lectionary was used in liturgy over long periods of time, it was until recently in a very bad state of preservation. The colours and the gold leaf of the grounds had peeled off in many places. A number of miniatures were almost entirely destroyed. The viewer can now admire this masterly work of art in its original state following its successful restoration.

A profound testimony to the mysteries and aesthetics of the Orthodox Church

The preserved text fragments of the Gospel Lectionary and the contents of the miniatures allow it to be ascribed to the tradition of typographic Gospel Lectionaries, which contained readings from the Gospels for each day, from Passion week and Easter down to Pentecost. The book contains only Saturday and Sunday readings for all other weeks of the ecclesiastical year.
In 1858, the precious Gospel Lectionary was presented to the Russian Tsar Alexander II as an aid for the construction of a church and thus moved to the collection of Greek manuscripts in the imperial library. The director of the library at the time proudly stated that ”the Greek Gospels [takes] the most important place among the recent acquisitions of our library in the year 1858”. The fragments from Trebizond were withdrawn from the Gospel Lectionary to which they were formerly bound and finally bound separately. They have been kept in this leather binding ever since.

The commentary volume

We were able to win the current ”keeper” of the codex, Mrs. Elena M. Schwarz from Saint Petersburg, as the most authoritative author. The commentary (German/English) comprises contributions on the environment of the manuscript, a codicological analysis, as well as a transcription of the Greek text.

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