A luxurious gift to the local church

[BIBLE, Slavonic] –

Evangelie Iisusa Khrista

[Gospels of Jesus Christ]

Publication: Moskva, [Synodalnaia tip.], 1791.

[BIBLE, Slavonic] -, Evangelie Iisusa Khrista

Large-format Moscow-printed Gospels in an impressive binding, very well preserved and probably from Ukraine/Western Russia. The binding is especially remarkable for its intricate design on both covers, its detailed contemporary provenance, and its appealing condition.

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An object of devotion and luxury: impressive metallic binding with rich ornaments, most likely made in Western Ukraine, which had just become Russian.

A fine example, in great condition without restoration and with detailed contemporary provenance. An unusually long hand-written inscription running along the bottom margin of more than 15 pages at the beginning of the book give us much information about its provenance: the luxurious object was donated to a St Nicholas church by Ioan Vetvetskii and his wife Anna, for the remission of sins and in commemoration of their deceased son, Nicholas, in 1796. Vetvetskii mentions in this inscription the small town of Khalaimgorodok (modern-day Horodkivka, Ukraine), located near Berdychiv to the south-west of Kyiv; this territory was ceded to Russia just four years before the inscription, during the Second Partition of Poland (1792), which was followed by the third and final one in 1795.

The Vetvetskiis’ donation must have been prominent: delicately decorated bindings such as this one were “created by order of sovereigns, major figures of the Church and representatives of the highest aristocracy, as only they could afford it” (Aksenova, our translation here and elsewhere). An object of veneration akin to the holy cross and icons, such a Naprestolnoe Evangelie (‘Gospels for the Church Altar’) was taken by the clergy for readings during services, and otherwise remained on the altar at all times: this can be witnessed by the slight soiling and fading of the silver on the spine and upper board of this copy.

This binding, apparently unsigned and without any hallmark, is a striking example of 18th-c. craftsmanship from the Russian Empire. The upper board boasts five hand-painted porcelain enamel (finift) medallions depicting the Resurrection of Christ and the Four Evangelists. Nicely preserved with their fresh original colours, the medallions were inspired by both Western baroque and mediaeval imagery; the latter is evident in the amusingly stylised depictions of bestial symbols of the Evangelists.

The arrangement of the Evangelists, from top left clockwise — Matthew, Mark, John, Luke — is less common than the usual order in Russian bindings, with “John, who traditionally is always located in the upper left corner, Matthew, Mark, and Luke” (Makarova); it is in a way closer to the arrangement found in Ukrainian bindings: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John (Arendar). Each medallion here is placed within an oval and then rectangular floral frames as parts of a larger intricate composition all along the edges of the upper board. The symmetrical and well-balanced ornaments are reminiscent of classicism which became popular in Russia from the third quarter of the 18th century, yet the influences of baroque art are still dominant. The Resurrection is held within a large monstrance filled with cherubs — Catholic decorative elements that Christian Orthodox art acquired in the late 18th century. The so-called kanfarka, or a matte granular surface, softens the backgrounds and allows the decorative elements to come forward.

The binding additionally stands out for its elaborate and dynamic high relief composition of the lower board: “the lower covers of Gospel bindings, with few exceptions, had no imagery in Russian religious tradition” (Krushelnitskaia), and “[as opposed to Ukrainians, many] Russian masters […] left the lower board, spine, and clasps unadorned” (Arendar, quoted by Pavlova). In the centre, Virgin Mary holds the infant Jesus in a sumptuous temple with four columns; above them soars the Holy Spirit as a bird facing down. God the Father, here inscribed as “G[ospo]d Savaov”, appears from the clouds over the temple, with two angels on either side. At the lower tier are six prophets: king Solomon as a crowned young man, Aaron, Moses, Habakkuk, Zechariah, and King David, also with a crown. They hold scrolls inscribed with their names in a peculiar, almost naive style: arranged in uneven rows of small dots. Some of the inscriptions spell several words in an unusual, if not erroneous way, such as “prophet” (“prarok” instead of “prorok”) and “Davyt” instead of “David”. It might be that the engraver of these inscriptions wrote them ‘by ear’.

Traditionally, a Christian Orthodox iconostasis would show the prophets placed in a long row on either side of Virgin Mary and Jesus, representing the transition of the Church from Moses to Christ. Here the prophets are lined underneath, possibly because of the compositional restrictions of the vertical board; some of them are pointing at Jesus, and some are facing the viewer. The whole composition is placed in an intricate frame, with four protective ‘legs’ (zhukoviny) incorporated in the frame and rendered as flowers.

The spine is also nicely ornate, with images of walls of Jerusalem, cross with a serpent, winged cherubs, chalice, tablets, candles and an uncommon depiction of the sun, moon and star shining over a lamb (?) with a gonfalon. Strongly inspired by Western Catholic and baroque art, the binding was most likely created in Western Ukraine, where the owner inscribed and donated the Moscow-printed book to St Nicholas church.

The Gospels themselves were produced by order of Catherine the Great at the Moscow Synodal Printing House, “the main centre for the production of Cyrillic printed books” at that time (Vasilieva). Originally printed in 1766, this luxurious, large-format edition was republished with slight changes multiple times up until the early 19th century. Pages are illustrated with nice floral frames, joined by four headpieces showing annunciation, nativity, epiphany (baptism) and resurrection, and four engraved baroque frontispiece plates at the start of each Gospel. All plates are dated 1766 and credit their authors: engraver Vasilii Ikonnikov after the drawing of student Petr Popov (St Matthew), student Semen Nazarov after student Petr Popov (St Mark), student Aleksei Andreev after student Ivan Fedorov (St Luke), and Stefan Efimov after Semen Vtorov (St John).

The most notable artists of this group, the engraver Vasilii Ikonnikov and the draftsman Semen Vtorov “defined the style of illustrations of Cyrillic liturgical books in the second half of the century” (Vasilieva). Both received professional academic training — Ikonnikov, for instance, studied at the Slavic-Greco-Latin Academy and in the engraving chamber of the Academy of Sciences — before joining the Moscow Synodal Printing House first as apprentices and then as engravers and tutors. “Ikonnikov and Vtorov prepared a whole pleiad of illustrators. Subsequently, some of them became leading masters of the Synodal Printing House”, such as our other artists, Stefan Efimov, Aleksei Andreev and Semen Nazarov, who was also known for his engravings for lubok images (Vasilieva).


Ioan & Anna Vetvetskii (inscription in brown ink on lower margins of the first 16 pages); Private collection, UK.


Igoshev, Viktor. “Sbornyi serebrianyi oklad Evangeliia XVI-XVII vv. Iz Gosudarstvennogo Russkogo muzeia. Issledovanie i atributsiia” // Vestnik tserkovnogo iskusstva i arkheologii, 2019. T. 1. №1. pp. 160-181.

Klepikov S. A. Iz istorii russkogo khudozhestvennogo perepleta. Moskva, Kniga, 1959.

Makarova A. A. Osen russkogo Srednevekovia, SPb, 2018, p. 122.

Vasilieva L. N. Knizhnaia graviura v izdaniiakh kirillicheskoi pechati Moskovskoi sinodalnoi tipografii XVIII-XIX vekov, Rossiikskaia Akademiia Khudozhestv, 2004.

Aksenova, Mariia. Entsiklopediia dlia detei. T. 7, Iskusstvo, 1997.

Pavlova, Inna. Serebrianye oklady Evangelii iz sobraniia Gosudarstvennogo muzeia istorii religii. Katalogi Gosudarstvennogo muzeia istorii religii. Sankt-Peterburg, Aktsioner i Ko, 2005.

Shcherbakivskyi D. Zolotarska oprava knyzhky v XVI-XIX stolittiakh na Ukraini. Kyiv, Derzh. trest “Kyiv-Druk”, 1924.

The engravers in Rovinskii, but not these works.

Item number



Physical Description

Folio (53 x 33 cm). 510 leaves in red and black, historiated headpieces and ornament tailpieces, some large initials, 4 engraved plates, partly printed on blue paper.


Contemporary silver-plated brass in elaborate high relief over wooden boards, four protective ornamental ‘legs’ on lower board, metal clasps, edges with a blind stamped ornamental pattern, original yellow floral endpapers.


Binding dulled (by dirt?) but retaining its original patina, minimally bumped, silver on upper board and spine a bit faded, endpapers with wear and some punctures; small marginal worming to first and last few leaves, small puncture mark to first leaves, occasional staining or soiling but usually light and minor, a few marginal chips or short tears, one leaf torn with very small loss.

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