www.ocamagazine.com #35 summer 2020 text & photos by Mikhail Rybakov

Vasily Koren, is still a little-known name in Belarus, but for the first time this name, significant for the Belarusian historical and cultural heritage, has begun to be heard on the streets and in the media in Belarus.

In January 2020 in the State Museum of History of Belarusian Literature, in the framework of the project “Returning Forgotten Names”, opened a unique exhibition, “The Bible for the People of 1692-1696 by Vasily Koren”. For the first time in Belarus, reconstructed sheets of the first engraved Bible for the people that Belarusian woodcarver Vasily Koren created in the 17th century, were presented to the general public.

Reconstructed sheets of the Book of Genesis and the Book of the Apocalypse were provided to the museum by the President of the Academy of Folk Art of Russia (Moscow), Viktor Penzin, who spent ten years on their restoration using a method of reconstruction based on the original model.

Vasily Koren was born around 1640 in the town of Dubrovno (now a city in the Vitebsk region). In 1691 he settled in Moscow in the Meshchansky settlement. Here, between 1692-1696 he engraved and printed the Bible in paintings similar to the Western Bibles of the Poor. It included a series of painted prints with captions for stories from the Book of Genesis and the Apocalypse.

Koren’s technique combines the influence of the Catholic and Protestant illustrated Bibles (in particular, the Piscator’s Bible), the icon-painting tradition and the aesthetics of the popular print that appeared at that time, and is deeply original in character. Due to the presence of non-canonical images of God (in the illustrations for the Six-Day appearing in the form of an angel), the circulation of the Bible of Koren (about a thousand copies) was withdrawn and almost completely destroyed.

The only partially surviving copy of the book (36 sheets) is a 17th-century original, which is today stored in the Rare Book Department of the State Public Library in St. Petersburg. The authorship of Koren is indicated by the personal signature of the carver.

Currently reconstructed by the famous Moscow graphic artist, Viktor Penzin, the Bible by Vasily Koren (in posters) is available in only a few museums around the world: in the Vatican, Mexico, Madrid, in Russia – in the Hermitage and the Tretyakov Gallery. Copies of the Bible were handed to Pope John Paul II, Exarch of Belarus Filaret, Patriarch Kirill.

A deep historical contribution of Belarusian masters to the culture of Russia, is confirmed by historians and art historians alike. Belarusian masters worked on decorating the Faceted Chamber of the Moscow Kremlin, worked in the Armory, Golden and Silver Chambers, in the monasteries and palaces of Moscow and the surrounding area, creating amazingly beautiful creations, which are now included in the list of highly artistic works of architecture and art, are part of national treasures of Russia.

The Bible for the people in pictures (modeled after the “Western” ones) was cut by Vasily Koren on wooden boards and printed in Moscow in 1692-1696, where he worked with other prominent Belarusian artists taken to Moscow. Its special value is that in its cultural significance for the Slavic writing, spiritual and historical-cultural heritage of the Belarusian people, it is comparable to the level of heritage of Francisk Skorina and Simeon of Polotsk.

The Bible for the people of Vasily Koren is quite distinctive. He created the first engraved book in Russia, a “Block book”, created from coloured engravings with captions for stories from the Book of Genesis and the Apocalypse. It consists of 36 sheets of engravings dedicated to the creation and end of the world, the structure of the universe, the relationship of God, the devil and man.

In various hypotheses the creation of the book is considered as a textbook for senior officials (possibly from the royal family) or as a “book on the road” for the army and immigrants for the “Azov campaigns” of Peter the Great. These are not the only versions, which, like the others, can be defended or refuted with a certain degree of probability.

A narrow circle of specialists, who studied the history of engraving and Russian popular print, was previously aware of the carver Vasily Koren. One such philologist, art critic, and best specialists in Russia in the field of Russian folk art and Russian engraving, is academician of the Russian Academy of Folk Art Antonina Sakovich, who discovered and documented the Belarusian origin of the master.

In general, the Koren’s Bible has become an interesting example of the transformation of the ideas of East and West through the prism of perception of the world by Belarusian masters of that time. It is very symbolic that after hundreds of years she returned to her creator’s homeland to glorify the skill and innovation of the Belarusian people, to emphasize its historical significance to those who are now trying to declare the supposedly “youth and artificiality” of the Belarusian people as such, their lack of historical traditions and the past. The history of such examples proves just the opposite, that many other nations built their art and cultural traditions on the basis of the creative ideas of Belarusian masters and the actions of extraordinary personalities of Belarusian origin.

Unfortunately, access to the original Koren Bible is now somewhat difficult. The museum where the original is stored did not respond to letters and requetss for co-operation. Nevertheless, on the basis of studies and copies of drawings that have come down to us from the collections of Dmitry Alexandrovich Rovinsky, a senator, a well-known collector and publisher of Russian prints, portraits, folk paintings (1824-1895), as well as the reconstruction of the Koren Bible, authored by Victor Petrovich Penzin, a researcher , a graphic artist, President of the Academy of Folk Art of Russia, we managed to see this masterpiece, which should be the property of many, and not just hide in the depths and silence of the departments of a rare book.

The reconstructed Koren Bible, consisting of all 36 sheets, printed from wooden forms and hand-painted (as it was in the original), was released in 1991, 100 years after the publication of the Atlas “Russian Folk Pictures” by D.Rovinsky, which speaks of the enduring cultural significance of the publication.

The Bible, which has been fully restored, has been accepted for storage at the funds of the State Hermitage Museum (St. Petersburg, 1989). It is stored in the collection of Russian graphics of Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid (Spain, 1990). The Bible of Koren was exhibited in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior (Moscow, 2016). At the request of the Russian Orthodox Church, a copy of the reconstructed Koren’s Bible was made and presented to Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia Kirill. Exhibitions were held in the Ivan Fedorov Museum of the Kiev Pechersk Lavra (Ukraine, 1989), the Pushkin Museum (Moscow, 1997), at the State Tretyakov Gallery (Moscow, 2016) and many others.

Since the reconstruction Koren’s Bible has been exhibited at 116 world exhibition venues, the last of which were museums of the Belarusian cities Dubrovno and Vitebsk (2019). In 2020 the exhibition was held at the State Museum of History of Belarusian Literature in the capital of the Republic of Belarus – Minsk.

We hope that the Bible for the people of Vasily Koren will take its place of honour among other pearls of art that have glorified the talented Belarusian people for centuries, and we still have many discoveries and unknown pages ahead for the pride and glory of Belarus.
Mikhail Rybakov, Director of the State Museum of history of Belarusian literature (Minsk, Belarus).