The Codex Sinaiticus and the Manuscripts of Mt Sinai in the Collections of the National Library of Russia

Bishop Porfiry (Uspensky) and his Collection

Bishop Porfiry "No one would say about me:
His earthly life was idle".

""Why do I walk the earth so long?
To bring, like a bee,
Beautiful honey to my hive, -
I am a God's bee, and Russia is my hive"


Bishop Porfiry (Uspensky)

Porfiry (Uspensky) (8 September 1804 - 19 April 1885), Bishop of Chigirin, Vicar of Kiev, the initiator and the head of the first Russian Ecclesiastical Mission in Jerusalem, was an outstanding Russian scholar of Oriental, Byzantine and Slavic history, Doctor of Hellenic philology, an archaeologist, ethnographer, specialist in the study of early texts, textual critic, paleographer, historian, art historian, theologian, and author of many scientific works.

Both his contemporaries and subsequent generations of Russian and international scholars showed an ambiguous attitude to this unusual person and researcher, connoisseur of antiquity who was above taking money and placed a premium on the truth. His path was long and thorny but filled with happy and fruitful spiritual and scholarly devotion.

Constantin Alexandrovich Uspensky born in "humble" Kostroma town on 8 September 1804, was the son of lowly sexton Alexander Matveevich and his wife Darya Stepanovna. Later in his life Bishop Porfiry, ever loving and grateful son, remembered his home and the "attic", and most of all, his mother who taught young Constantin "reverent fear, chastity, gentleness and patience".

In 1818 he finished the religious school and in 1824 the theological seminary in Kostroma.

In 1825 he entered the St Petersburg Theological Academy, graduating as Candidate of Theology in 1829. On 15 September in the same year he was admitted to monastic vows, on 20 September ordained hierodeacon, and on 25 September celibate priest.

On 1 July 1831 he took Master's degree and 2 July was appointed religious teacher at Richelieu Lyceum in Odessa.

He became the father superior of the second-class Monastery of the Dormition /Uspensky in Russia/ in Odessa on 1 may 1834 and was made archimandrite on 20 May. The service in Odessa had a profound impact on his life. It was there that Porfiry took an interest in Oriental Christendom, and learnt Modern Greek and Italian that subsequently proved so useful.

18 July 1838 he headed Kherson Ecclesiastical Seminary.

15 November he was appointed father superior of Russian Ecclesiastical Mission in Vienna where Archimandrite Porfiry mastered German and organized a scientific expedition into Dalmatia to study the life and written heritage of South Western Slavs.

On 14 November 1842, the Most Holy Synod made a decision, based on "Fr. Porfiry's adequate knowledge of Greek and experience in communications with our brothers in faith abroad", to dispatch him to Jerusalem to get acquainted with the life of Orthodox Christians in Palestine and Syria.

In the East he obtained ample opportunities to travel, visit monastery libraries and explore antiquities. In 1845-1846 Porfiry Uspensky made his first trip. Between January and June 1845 he undertook an expedition covering Egypt, Mt Sinai and monasteries in the Nitrian desert. Between August 1845 and January 1846, and between March and late June 1846, the richest treasures of Christian antiquity were examined by him on the Holy Mount Athos.

Yet Mt Sinai was Fr. Porfiry's primary concern. Unlike other old community, St. Catherine had never been plundered. The scholar considered it as an inexhaustible mine of antiquity. It was there that in 1845, fifteen years before C. Tischendorf, Porfiry Uspensky discovered and described a major portion of the manuscript Greek Bible, the celebrated 4th-century Codex Sinaiticus (the German scholar could see no more than 129 sheets in 1844).

Porfiry Uspensky maintained a firm position on the Codex Sinaiticus and disputed with C. Tischendorf. Nevertheless, he respected his scholarly opponent, kept in touch with him and often sent his own papers or old manuscripts to C. Tischendorf. For instance, he gave a Sinaitic Palimpsest from his own collection (RNB, Greek 225) to C. Tischendorf for publishing. The latter, in turn, presented Fr. Porfiry with several sheets from the publication of the Codex Sinaiticus, as indicated by the inscription on one leaf.

In Palestine Fr. Porfiry came to the idea to establish a spiritual mission in Jerusalem as a permanent representation of the Russian Orthodox Church under the jurisdiction of the Patriarchates of the East, upon which he made an entry in his Diary on January 7, 1844. His idea did not immediately find support from the Russian official authorities, but he selflessly defended his point of view and achieved goal several years later. The first Russian Ecclesiastical Mission in Jerusalem was established by the resolution of Emperor Nicholas I on 11 (23) February 1847. Porfiry Uspensky headed it until 1854 .

Over the years of work in the Mission Archimandrite. Porfiry with his team traveled all the shrines of the East. From 18 March to 17 August 1850 he was taken second trip to Egypt, during which the expedition visited the monastery of Sabas in Alexandria, New Patriarchy and Saint Nicholas church in Cairo, the oldest monasteries in prep. Anthony the Great and Paul of Thebes Red Sea, Monastery of St. Catherine in Sinai. In the course of his work for the Mission, Archimandrite Porfiry and his collaborators visited all sacred places in the East. Between 18 March and 17 August 1850 he returned to Egypt, during the second expedition visiting the monastery of St. Sabbas the Sanctified in Alexandria, the New Patriarchate and St. Nicholas Church in Cairo, old Red Sea monasteries of St. Anthony the Great and St. Paul of Thebes, and St. Catherine's Monastery on Mt. Sinai.

Staying at St. Catherine's Monastery from June to August 1850, Porfiry compiled a catalogue of Greek manuscripts from the monastery library at the request of the community. That was the first science-based catalogue of the oldest and richest library collections of the Orthodox East. All members of the Mission actively participated in creating the catalogue under the direction of their head, who engaged them in his research work. Only 60 years later this catalogue was published by another prominent specialist in Byzantine V.N. Beneshevich. Meanwhile, the age-old catalogue, made by Archimandrite Porfiry, have retained its scientific value today.

Among the Mission staff was an undergraduate student, Pyotr Soloviev, who constantly traveled together with Archimandrite Porfiry. His main duty was drawing: "he drew everything he was told" and "conducted himself as a righteous person". The young self-taught artist made copies of many icons, miniatures, as well as, landscapes and architectural sketches, some of which were published by Porfiry Uspensky in books and albums. Many drawings from Mt Sinai date from 1850. On his return from Palestine, Pyotr Soloviev (1825-1898) officiated at St. Mary's Church in Malaya Okhta, and in 1855 was made archpriest and appointed to the Church of the Protection (of the Virgin) in Bolshaya Kolomna. He served as parish priest to the end of his days. He was buried in St. Nicholas Cemetery at the Alexander Nevsky Monastery.

Porfiry Uspensky departed from Jerusalem on 8 May 1854 in view of the outbreak of the Russo-Turkish War, leaving his own research library and all property of the Mission to St. Archangels Monastery, in the hope of a speedy return.

However, he came back only after 4 years. On 24 February 1858, a special conference on improving conditions of Russian pilgrims in the Holy Land, under the chairmanship of Grand Duke Constantine Nikolaevich, decided to send a specific expedition to the East, which also included Archimandrite Porfiry "for pious and academic purposes, and for taking his property and library collections back from Jerusalem". The assignment lasted three years. In this period Porfiry Uspensky revisited Mt. Athos, and the famous Meteora. In 1861 he returned to Russia and would never leave it again.

In Petersburg he was acclaimed as a scholar of world renown. Both the Government and the Most Holy Synod turned to him for advice as an expert on Christian antiquities. Various scientific and charitable societies elected him an honorary or full member; Grand Duchess Elena Pavlovna chose him as her confessor.

Nevertheless, the Most Holy Synod hesitated for 11 years after his return from the Jerusalem Mission before appointing Archim. Porfiry to a position, which caused his anxiety. This is how he described the situation: "I remind everyone concerned that it was decreed to give me a position and that I am left homeless, but I am responded to with only praise of my talent and knowledge, as if I can use them for a tent to lead a nomad's life at the gate of St. Alexander Nevsky Monastery or the Synod; moreover, they say that my fate requires special consideration".

Eventually, on 14 February 1865, he was ordained Bishop of Chigirin and appointed first vicar of Kiev Metropolitan Eparchy, where he was taken "under the wing" of Metropolitan of Kiev Arseny (Moskvin), his former tutor in the religious school of Kostroma. Bishop Porfiry was glad with the appointment and had no trouble carrying out his duties. "Praise and thanks be to God righteous and gracious. I am very satisfied with my life. Heavenly peace reigns in my soul. My life flows smoothly like the quiet waters of the river Dnieper. I keep myself busy. I have served science to the best of my ability". The Kiev period can be considered to be the most fruitful in Bishop Porfiry's creative life. A large amount of time he spent in sorting and examining numerous items from his Eastern collections. Most of his writings were also published at that time.

Bishop Porfiry was remained Vicar of Kiev Metropolitan until 1878 when he was appointed member of Moscow Synodal Office and made father superior of the Stauropegic Novospassky Monastery [New Monastery of Our Savior]. Bishop Porfiry was not happy with his departure for Moscow but, as ever, his beloved "Oriental studies" redeemed him: "I have long consumed with grief that fate tossed me from Kiev to Moscow where I felt as a big bird in a small cage. If I had not been able to sing about Eastern Christendom there, I would have petrified by sorrowful boredom. Yet in the minutes, hours and days of this continuous and tireless singing I forget all my sorrow".

The Moscow period is the time of summing up. Feeling that his strength dwindled throughout the years but so much remains to do, he wrote a prayer in his diary on his 77th birthday: "O Lord, give me two decades more. I have a great deal of research to do. Extend my days to complete what I intended".

In Moscow Bishop Porfiry his work on his multivolume memoirs, written in vivid and poetic style and entitled inspirationally: A Book of My Life". At the same time the scholar tries to seek "a shelter" for his two outstanding collections - manuscripts and printed books.

The collector fully realized the value of his rarities and was a thoughtful owner. He commissioned passepartout frames and bindings for them, compiled catalogues and descriptions. Inventories and elegant gold embossed cardboards were made even for sheet material reproducing miniatures or fragments of old manuscripts.

In 1883, Bishop Porfiry's manuscript collection was purchased by Imperial Public Library for 15 thousand rubles. The collection contains precious ancient Greek, Slavonic and Oriental manuscripts that he brought from his trips. The collection is still in high demand among the world scholarly community.

It is noteworthy that Bishop Porfiry outlined his plan for the acquisition of manuscripts in the East in a letter to Chief Procurator of the Most Holy Synod A.P. Tolstoy, believing that it must be focused on and guided by the interests of the Russian Orthodox Church. He was convinced that the manuscripts may be purchased from private persons only, but should be borrowed from monastery libraries only for temporary use, for study and reproduction. However, he did not always follow this principle, fearing that precious Christian books would find "wrong owners" or be lost. He was always led by his warm heart and an unquenchable thirst for knowledge.

While Bishop Porfiry's manuscript collections found a new life on the shelves of the Imperial Public Library, the fate of his invaluable reseach library, which numbered over 7000 volums, was tragic. He did not find a buyer for it, but flatly refused to split it. Bishop Porfiry bequeathed the library to the Most Holy Synod. However, the Synod, unfortunately, failed to properly dispose of the property. The 41 labeled boxes with carefully packed books had been long stored in the basement of the New Monastery of Our Savior where they probably perished after 1917. Only the catalogue, created by the owner, has survived (along with all Bishop Porfiry's archives) at Saint-Petersburg Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences Archive (f. 118, op. 1, no. 39).

Bishop Porfiry (Uspensky) dies on 19 April 1885. He had a peaceful and dignified death: he was sitting in an armchair, facing East and holding a cypress cross he brought from his expeditions. Finishing his way upon the earth, Bishop Porfiry set off on a new, eternal journey, for which he was ready. Bishop Porfiry was buried at the New Monastery of Our Savior. The marble tombstone bears the epitaph composed by himself: "Here was laid to eternal rest Right Reverend Bishop Porfiry Uspensky, an author of many works on the Christian Orient. Pray for him".

Bishop Porfiry's Most Important Works Related to Sinai:

  1. The Sinai Peninsula // ZhMNP. 1848. No. 11 (otd. ott.: Saint Petersburg, 1848)
  2. The Second Visit to Mt Sinai Monastery in 1850. Saint Petersburg, 1856.
  3. The First Trip to Mt Sinai Monastery in 1845. Saint Petersburg, 1856.
  4. The Christian Orient: Egipt and Sinai. Saint Petersburg, 1857.
  5. Inscriptions on the Rocks of Sinai by Kinei Manafa. Saint Petersburg, 1857.
  6. News of a Glagolytic Psalter, Held in the Library of Mt Sinai Monastery. Bulletin of the Imperial Archaeological Society /Izvestia Imperatorskogo Arkheologicheskogo obshestva/ 1863. Vol. 5, issue I.

Zh. Levina,
Senior Research Scientist
of the Old Russian Manuscripts Section

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