The Ostromir Gospel is the oldest dated Russian manuscript book to have survived. It was commissioned by Ostromir, the governor of Novgorod, who was a close confidant of Prince Iziaslav of Kiev, the son of Yaroslav the Wise.
In an lengthy codicil on the last page of the book the scribe, Deacon Grigory, records that he worked on it from 21 October 1056 to 12 May 1057. An inscription on the first page Evangelie sofeiskoe aprakos states that Ostromir donated the manuscript to St Sophia's Cathedral in Novgorod.
The subsequent fate of the work can be traced in documents only from the beginning of the eighteenth century. The Ostromir Gospel is mentioned in an inventory of the property belonging to one of the churches in the Moscow Kremlin which was compiled in 1701. In 1720 a decree by Peter the Great required the gathering of information about ancient documents and manuscript books in churches and monasteries and in that same year the Ostromir Gospel was sent from Moscow to St Petersburg. Then we again lose track of the work for 85 years, until 1805 when it was found among the effects of Catherine II. Emperor Alexander I gave orders for the rediscovered book to be passed to the manuscript department of the Public Library where it has been kept to the present day.
The transfer of the Ostromir Gospel to the Public Library marked the beginning of a many-sided study of it, from the palaeographic and linguistic points of view and also as a historical source. Among the first to examine the work were Olenin, Nikolai Rumiantsev, Metropolitan Yevgeny (Bolkhovitinov), Karamzin, Yermolaev and Keppen. Alexander Vostokov devoted many years to a study of the manuscript. In 1820 he published the monumental work Deliberations on the Slavonic Language and in 1843 he produced the first (and still the only) carefully prepared scholarly publication of the Ostromir Gospel with a grammatical commentary and detailed index of words.
Subsequently many major scholars (including Fiodor Buslaev, Izmail Sreznevsky, Alexander Fortunatov and Viacheslav Shchepkin) turned their attention to the Ostromir Gospel as a work of immense significance for Russian and Slavonic historical philology, and an understanding of Russian books, art and culture in the mid-eleventh century. In 1988, the 1000th Anniversary of the Baptism of Rus, a facsimile edition of this priceless manuscript was produced.
The Ostromir Gospel was written less than 70 years after the adoption of Christianity and the introduction of writing in Russia. The high standard of calligraphy and artistic design seen in this manuscript are evidence that the art of the book rapidly flourished in early Russia. The Gospel was copied onto splendidly prepared white parchment in a formal uncial script and richly decorated. The book contains three large depictions of the Evangelists John, Luke and Mark, attractive headpieces at the start of the text and the chapters, and historiated initials, all of which were worked in bright paints and pure gold leaf which is still undimmed by age. Especially interesting and original are the initials where human faces peer out from complex geometrical ornament interwoven with the claws and tails of fantastic birds and beasts. The technique used in the illumination distinctly reveals the influence of the applied art of the time. The manner in which outlines of the figures are drawn as if cut from sheets of gold and the spaces in between them filled with paints is highly reminiscent of cloisonne enamel and many of the historiated letters create the impression of being precious pieces of jewellery.
But the artistic appearance of the Ostromir Gospel is determined by more than just the illumination. Open any page of the text and you find a splendid example of the copyist's art, created with balance, fine taste and excellent workmanship. We can suggest, then, that Deacon Grigory was not only a remarkable calligrapher, but also a talented artist. With the help of others who shared his vision he created a genuine masterpiece that remains a superb monument to the work of old Russian scriptoria.