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Will Ukraine’s Ministry of Culture recognize the historical importance of the Nobel Gospel of 1520?  

The Four Gospels of Nobel is a handwritten manuscript of Ukraine’s Polissya region. It was written in 1520 in the village of Nobel, Zarichnensky Raion, Rivne Oblast. Photo: (official website)
Article by: Petro Kraliuk, Chairman of the Academic Council of the National University of Ostroh Academy, Professor, Honoured Scholar and Scientist of Ukraine
Translated by: Christine Chraibi
Today, very few Ukrainians seem interested in anything related to cultural and heritage issues. A few weeks ago, mass media was ablaze with the return of Ukrainian citizens from China, the dangers of COVID-19 and the town of Novi Sanzhary in Poltava Oblast, where the repatriated Ukrainians were isolated. Today, we read about Zelenskyy’s government reshuffle, the resignation of Prosecutor Ryaboshapka, the formation of a new government and appointment of new officials… and stringent quarantine measures. Ukrainians have become more or less accustomed to daily scandals, mostly political in nature. So, is there any point in talking about culture?

Nevertheless, culture is what binds a nation. It cements national identity, while cultural recollection and memory play an important role in building a national identity. Unfortunately, the current government is not interested in these things.

I recently talked with a Verkhovna Rada deputy. He told me that he really enjoyed spending his holidays at Lake Nobel, Rivne Oblast. I reminded him that this year marks the 500th anniversary of the writing of the Nobel Gospel. At this point, the MP shrugged his shoulders and moved on to another topic.

We firmly believe that this cultural anniversary should not be ignored by our leaders… Indeed, it is unfortunate that they have ignored many other significant anniversaries related to Ukrainian cultural history.

The Four Gospels of Nobel, 1520. Photo: prosvita.rv (official website)

The Nobel Gospel and the village of Nobel

The Nobel Gospel is an important medieval cultural and religious artifact that has survived through the centuries. It was written in 1520 in the town of Nobel (currently, village of Nobel, Zarichnensky Raion, Rivne Oblast, often referred to as Polissya region*).  The name has nothing to do with Alfred Bernard Nobel, although the Varangian Vikings may have founded this settlement. The name of the village seems to be Scandinavian, and we can find words from different Scandinavian languages ​​in Polissya dialects.

(*Polissya is a natural and historical region starting from the farthest edges of Central Europe and into Eastern Europe, stretching from parts of Eastern Poland, touching similarly named Podlasie, straddling the Belarus-Ukraine border and into western Russia-Ed).

This village and its region deserve a few words. The settlement is washed by the waters of a large picturesque lake, also called Lake Nobel. This well-protected area has been inhabited for centuries, and traces of human presence date back to the Mesolithic period. Today, the village is a living open-air museum. Here, you can find wooden houses with carved archaic solar signs. Folklorists and ethnographers regularly visit the region to record ancient folk songs. In summer, the village welcomes tourists, who come here for fishing and family vacations.

Nobel was first mentioned in the Kyiv Chronicle, where life in the Nobel parish is described in 1158. It refers to a town called Nebl (Nobel), an important settlement, the centre of the “volost” (small administrative district in Kyivan Rus). The Galician-Volyn Chronicle also mentions the town of Nebl in 1262, and the battle between the armies of Volyn Prince Vasylko Romanovych and Lithuania.

In the princely period, Nobel was an important urban centre of Polissya. It counted five churches, which provided elementary education and served as centres of writing. For example, it was in Mykolayivska church that the monks finished copying the Holy Gospel in 1520:

“… this book, called the Tetra Gospel, was created under King Sigismund, Bishop Iona, Bishop Turovsky and Pinsky, under Prince Fedir Yaroslavovych, at the command of the devout servant of God Simeon Batyevych, Elder Khoyinsky, and presented to the church… of Saint Mykola in Nobel. And whoever removes this book from St. Mykola Church in Nobel, Pinsky County, shall be cursed in this age and in the future. The book was written in Nobel by the servant of God, sacristan Sevastian Avramovych. The book was completed this month in June, the first day of the month, the day of Saint Justin, martyr and philosopher.”

The book also mentions another scribe, sacristan Levko. There were probably several scribes working on the sacred manuscript.

The holy book included not only the four Gospels, but also a preface – Sobornyk, which mentions the saints and the weeks of Lent, and recommends passages for Gospel readings. The Nobel Gospel is a voluminous book containing 700 pages.

Judging from the above quote, the book was copied at the request of Simeon Batyevych, a local magnate. We should not be surprised by the Tatar surname, as at that time, many Tatar soldiers had already settled in Polissya and become wealthy landowners. In fact, they readily embraced the culture and traditions of the local Rusyn people.

The Nobel Gospel testifies to the high level of writing culture that existed in Ukraine in the Middle Ages. Not far from Nobel lies the city of Turiv (today, a city in Gomel Oblast, Belarus), an important centre of Kyivan Rus, where a Holy Gospel was discovered in the 11th century.

The Nobel Gospel, 1520. Photo: (official website)

The wandering Gospel

The Nobel Gospel was probably kept in the city until the middle of the 19th century. In 1856, the Museum of Antiquity was officially established in the city of Vilno (today, Vilnius, Lithuania), where ancient objects and artifacts were carefully collected and stored. Museum expeditions were sent to the Polissya region of Ukraine, and it is highly likely that the Nobel Gospel was found in the town and then transported to Vilnius during one of these expeditions. This would explain its presence in Vilnius. Today, it has been restored and is stored in the Library of the Academy of Sciences in Vilnius, Lithuania.

The Nobel Gospel was “re-discovered” in Ukraine in 2014 by Valentyna Tumash, a teacher and local historian from the village of Mutvytsia, Zarichnensky Raion, Rivne Oblast. Reverend Pavlo Dubinets, a native of the village of Nobel, Father Superior of St. Paraskevsky Church in the village of Marochne, also studied the history of the sacred book and contributed to its so-called “return” to Ukraine.

Valentyna Tumash, teacher and local historian from the village of Mutvytsia, Zarichnensky Raion, Rivne Oblast
Reverend Pavlo Dubinets, native of the village of Nobel, Father Superior of St. Paraskevsky Church in the village of Marochne

In  fact, thanks to the perseverance of these people and the local councils, as well as the generous support of the Vasyl Yanitsky Charitable Foundation “Nash Kray” (Our Land), specialists travelled to Lithuania at the end of 2019 and were allowed to make facsimile copies of the Nobel Gospel. Now, this unique book can be viewed and studied by Ukrainian researchers and historians.

The 500th anniversary of the Nobel Gospel will be commemorated on June 14 of this year. There is still time for the government and the Ministry of Culture to organize a ceremony commemorating this important historical event.

[editorial]The Nobel Gospel is the oldest written record of Ukraine’s Polissya, and, according to researchers, it is 41 years older than the well-known Peresopnytsia Gospel, one of the most beautiful and intricately-written East Slavic manuscripts.

The Peresopnytsia Gospel was written between 1556 and 1561 at the Monastery of the Holy Trinity in Iziaslav and the Monastery of the Mother of God in Peresopnytsia, Volyn Oblast. Since 1991, all six  Ukrainian presidents have taken the oath of office on the Peresopnytsia Gospel.[/editorial]

Translated by: Christine Chraibi
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