Hermitage Days 2011
On 9 December 2011, an exhibit entitled “From Birch Bark to Paper. The Book in Old Rus’” opened in the Arab Room of the Winter Palace as part of Hermitage Days, presenting seventy four items from the collection of the Novgorod Museum-Reserve. This exhibit offers an opportunity to see birch bark documents and tablets, pens and inkpots, handwritten and printed books from the greatest center of Medieval booklore.
This set of archeological items from the 11th-15th centuries will acquaint with the earliest stage in the history of literary and ancient Novgorod. During this period the townsfolk’s unique notebooks were “tzery”, wooden tablets, covered with wax, which one could take down notes, write drafts, or draw. The old text was erased and smoothed out, freeing a place for additional writing. The oldest surviving “tzera” is a Book of Psalms from the early 11th century, found in the Troitsky excavation of Novgorod. The specific conditions in which the Book of Psalms is stored prevent it from being moved, and therefore it is described in a short film. Two tzeras from the Troitsky excavation are presented at this exhibit. The 12th century “Novgorod” tzera, judging by the remaining writing, was used to tribute-collector. Another tzera, from the second half of the 14th century, is Western European in origin.
Birch bark is a more famous type of writing material. Every aspect of everyday life is depicted in these birch documents. Since vellum was expensive, birch bark was a more available writing material. People wrote personal letters, taught their children to write, and recorded devotions and incantations on pieces of birch bark. The majority of writings on birch bark are in the Novgorod dialect of the ancient Russian language, which, unlike Old Church Slavonic, was used in oral speech.
People would sew separate birch bark pages together, turning them into long-lived books. This exposition contains the only complete birch book, found in the ancient Slavenskiy district of Novgorod, to the West of the Znamensky Cathedral. It contains difficult Old Church Slavonic texts that require a good memory, which are read once a year at Church festivals (during Great Vespers).
In order to write on wax or birch bark, ancient people used pens (many of which have been recovered), sharpened metal and bone erasers with a dull end for smoothing out writing. Almost with the simplest and most artless of letters, archeological findings include real works of art: elegant, curving, ornamented pins.
Handwritten books on vellum appear in Novgorod at the same time that literary was becoming widespread. The most ancient of the written excerpts presented here dates back to the 11th century. This religious text was written in an “uncial” form, in geometrically even letters, distinct from one another and placed entire within the lines.
The real masterpieces of ancient Russian bookmaking are illuminated paper manuscripts, Saint John of the Ladder, from the beginning of the 15th century and the Gospel, written in the 16th century by the scribe Andreichina. The ornamentation of this manuscript of this Gospel, the style and technique of its miniature illustrations reflects Western European tradition. The gold-leaf backgrounds of the miniature illustrations on the inserted vellum pages were created with particular virtuosity.
Russia’s first printed books in the 16th century also retain the distinctive features of hand-written books. For example, the hand-painted head ornaments and dropped capitals that can be seen on the pages of an edition of the Gospel from 1563-1564, give the text a particular elegance. The printed book would continue to exist for many centuries in parallel with hand-written books, which were common in the religious and secular world in the form of law books and scrolls. Examples of hand-written books of the 17th century include singing manuscripts, works of literature, and commemoration books, decorated with miniature illustrations.
The section of old printed books includes rare editions from the 16th-17th centuries. The publication of the Ostrog Bible is associated with the first printer, Ivan Fedorov. It combined all of the biblical texts which, thanks to its cheap typographical form, became accessible to the average reader. Two books from the 16th century, a Lvov Epistles and Wilensky Book of Common Prayer, were printed in Poland, where book printing began significantly earlier.
Novgorod’s unique frontier locality made it possible for foreign, Russian and local Novgorod technologies and artistic styles to interact. The collection of the Novgorod State Conservation Area demonstrates a striking period in the history of literary and bookmaking in old Rus’.
The curator of this exhibit is Yevgeny Viktorovich Platonov, head librarian of the Research Library of the State Hermitage Museum.
The publishing house of the State Hermitage Museum has prepared an illustrated scholarly catalogue with an introduction by T.N. Kazarmshikova, the deputy general director for scholarly work of the Novgorod State United Museum-Reserve, and V.Yu. Matveev, the deputy director of the State Hermitage Museum for exhibits and development. The author of the overview article is I.G. Kukartzeva, academic associate of the Novgorod State United Museum-Reserve.