Cracking the Francysk Skaryna Code

This man studied and lived in several countries, shuttled across Europe, went in and out of prison, worked as a publisher, doctor, gardener, with his interests ranging from the art of woodcut to translation, and, possibly, even Kabbalah. Now, here is the best part – he managed to do all these things five centuries ago without any Internet, budget airlines and time management courses. His name was Francysk Skaryna, the man who printed the first Belarusian book in Prague using the knowledge and skills he acquired in Poland and Italy. Indeed, he made a very good use of the “Renaissance globalisation”.


If you come to Polatsk today, you will see a rather pleasant medium-size town, with a fair amount of preserved landmarks, nice river, and the air of an ancient capital, which now humbly accepts its status as a provincial centre. This is where Francysk Skaryna was born. The exact dates of his birth and death are unknown; the two most probable estimates are 1485–1540 and 1490–1551.
Luka, the father of Francysk, was a respectable merchant who traded in furs. Francysk probably received his first schooling in Polatsk, and then went off to Krakow University. Most likely, it was in Krakow where Skaryna first saw a printing machine (the city’s first print shop had been set up in 1496). He received his bachelor’s degree in 1506, and about seven years later gained his doctorate in medicine at the University of Padua in Italy. In the interim time he became secretary to king Hans of Denmark (1481–1513) and acquired a thorough knowledge of liberal arts, the Classical languages, botany, astronomy, law and heraldry. Skaryna also mastered the south German style of woodcut and studied printing in northern Italy. There he moved in circles which enjoyed the protection of the Habsburg Emperor Maximilian. It is therefore very possible that his path could have crossed with Albrecht Dürer and many of his other famous contemporaries. According to one hypothesis, Raphael depicted Francysk Skaryna in his fresco “The School of Athens” in Vatican. The fresco contains Raphael’s self-portrait together with an unknown person right next to him. If you look into the plump features of Skaryna on his own woodcut self-portrait, and compare it to the unidentified image on Raphael’s fresco, you may think that the hypothesis might not be groundless.
The University of Padua still cherishes the memory of Skaryna. His portrait can be found in the Room of Forty, where other pictures and memorabilia pertinent to forty most prominent alumni are exhibited, including the chair of Galileo, who taught in Padua from 1592 to 1610.
After his graduation, Francysk Skaryna began to practice medicine, but he never abandoned his dream of printing books in his native language. At that time book printing was like a dot-com boom of 1995-2000 (except that it never turned out to be a bubble). Northern Italy resembled some kind of Silicon Valley where adventurous young entrepreneurs were massively setting up print shops like software development garages. Having learned that the Czechs had their first book printed in Venice in 1506, Skaryna thought, “The time has come”. As a result, the Belarusians became the second people in the Slavonic world, who had their Bible printed in their own language. In 1517, Francysk Skaryna established a printing press in Prague, where he published his first book entitled “The Psalter” in the old Belarusian language on August 6, 1517.
Skaryna spent two years in Prague, where he translated and printed the Psalter and some 22 books of the Old Testament. These were magnificent books. He used a handsome typeface interspersed with rebuses and illustrated with a series of woodcuts and arcane decorated initials. In total, he printed about 10 000 books in his print shop (one book amounted to about 500 printed copies). For the Belarusian nation, it was an enormous leap forward. The Bible was becoming understandable and affordable. Before that, only the richest aristocrats and monasteries were capable of buying hand-written books. Skaryna was also a very practical innovator. He printed his Bible in a handy “tabloid” format – four times smaller than the traditional size, which made it more comfortable to read.
Around 1522 he moved to Vilnius and established the first print shop in the Great Duchy of Lithuania, his native country. Owing to Skaryna, Belarusians received an opportunity to buy and read the affordable printed Bible in their own language even before Germans, English, French did. Skaryna was working ahead of time – perhaps, too far ahead in some cases. For example, he took a big batch of his books to Moscow, proposing local authorities and church to establish the first print house. For Skaryna it was also a smart business project: he would have been the first to tap into the enormous market of the Russian Empire – compare it to becoming the first Internet provider in modern Russia. However, the Moscow authorities were not ready for such a proposal, and made a spectacular fire out of Skaryna’s “devilish” books. Only about half a century later, Ivan Fedorov (arguably, also a man from Belarusian lands) set up the first print shop in the Russian Empire.
Skaryna also laid groundwork for the development of the Belarusian language. Actually, he called his Bible “Biblia Ruska”, which often leads to misunderstandings. In the Great Duchy of Lithuania the term “Ruski” referred to the local Slavic proto-Belarusian culture, while people living in what later became Russian Empire were called “Muscovites”. In any case, even the most biased linguist would not deny that Skaryna’s Bible is printed in an Eastern Slavonic language, which is heavily saturated with genuinely Belarusian lexica.
Skaryna did not merely translate the Bible – he also extensively interpreted it. He wrote elaborate and yet precise and clear prefaces to each book he printed. He also provided in-depth margin commentaries, explanations and translations of complicated and foreign words. Combined, his remarks form some kind of book hypertext. He would have probably created a multimedia Bible, if he had a chance to put it online.
Historians estimate that the Inquisition could have burned Skaryna not less than 13 times for heresy. Not only had he added prefaces and comments to the Holy Script, but he also included his full-size self-portrait! It is probably no coincidence that Skaryna began to print his Bible the same year Martin Luther hammered his Ninety-Five Theses on the door of a church in Wittenberg. Skaryna was a true man of Renaissance and Reformation. He never mentioned which branch of Christianity he adhered to, preferring to describe himself as a Christian, rather than a Catholic or Orthodox.
Skaryna’s edition of the Bible turned out to be a splendid book with numerous woodcuts and rich vignettes, which are not just beautiful, but also full of mysteries and symbols. One should not forget that he printed his books in Prague, not too far away from the Altneuschul (Staronová) Synagogue, with Golem’s heavy ceramic pieces hidden somewhere in its basement. It was a famous centre of allegory and cabbala studies, a fashionable trend among young educated Europeans of that time. It turns out, that Skaryna followed the fashion and actually experimented with encoding encrypted images into his Bible illustrations.
Rygor Ravyaka, Associate Professor at the Belarusian State University of Informatics and Radio Electronics, scanned the woodcuts of Skaryna’s Bible and ran them through a special computer program which made it possible to reveal hidden images. Professor believes that Skaryna used the “mirror trick” in order to hide information. If you hold a mirror perpendicularly to the picture, in some places new images are formed out of chaotic lines and dots, with one half of the image visible on paper, and another one in the mirror. For example, Professor Ravyaka discovered a human figure concealed in an ornamental pattern; a miniature with the letter “P” contained a reversed picture of a two-headed eagle, possibly symbolising the Russian Empire which was then not too successful in its military endeavours; Skaryna included the portrait of Kanstantsin Astrozhsky, his rich patron, into the letter “A”; and in the letter “M” one can discover the image of Medusa, a beast from the ancient Greek mythology, which was defeated by Perseus who avoided Medusa’s deadly stare by looking into his (sic!) mirror-polished shield.
“The printed word has power”, said Martin Luther, prominent contemporary of Francysk Skaryna. However, not only Belarusian historians like to create hypotheses about possible encounters of these two great people. In the 1990’s a play “Vita Brevis, or the Pants of St. George” by Belarusian playwright Maxim Klimkovich was staged at the “Volnaya Scena” theatre in Minsk. Traditionally, Skaryna is shown as an idealistic and devoted national hero. This frivolous piece, however, depicts not only theological debates between Luther and Skaryna, but also their romantic adventures with various women. Oh well, it was the period of Renaissance...
Skaryna probably valued a good sense of humour; otherwise, it would have been too difficult for him to go through such a turbulent life. In 1529, his brother Ivan died in Posnan, Poland, while tying to launch a leather-trading business. Skaryna went to Posnan in order to return the money his wife invested into his brother’s failed enterprise. However, in a strange twist of fate Francysk was thrown into Posnan’s prison. A rich merchant from Warsaw who is referred in archival documents under the name Old Moses (Moses Antiquus) demanded his arrest until he repaid a debt of his brother. However, when the King Sigismund I found out that Skaryna was jailed, he ordered his release and even granted him rights that made the publisher immune to further prosecution.
Francysk Skaryna spent the last years of his life in Prague, working as a gardener in the Royal Botanical Gardens. However, the seeds he had been planting in the Czech capital gave their best crops at home, where new book printers – and readers – were emerging.
The name of Francysk Skaryna has a tremendous weight in today’s Belarusian culture and national conscience. Perhaps, fearing it may eclipse his own, President Lukashenka made a strange and abrupt move by ordering to rename the main Minsk street – Skaryna Avenue – into the Avenue of Independence in 2005. A number of protests took place. People took to the streets with self-made printouts from Skaryna’s Bible. Fortunately, one does not need to set up a print press to make them anymore – a computer printer will do. As usual, police chased people away, which, sometimes, led to anecdotic incidents. Thus, during a flash-mob on May 10, 2005 the police unit stopped a group of protesters. A banner that was confiscated contained the most well known patriotic abstract from Francysk Skaryna’s preface. To a great delight of the crowd, the poor policeman, holding a walkie-talkie to his mouth, had to read out the whole passage in the old Belarusian language to his chief: “From their birth, the beasts rambling in deserts know their holes, birds flying in the air know their nests, fishes swimming in the sea and rivers sense their whirls, bees and the like defend their hives - and so do people. Where they were born and raised with God’s will, they take much liking to that place”. For the Russian-speaking police officer that passage was a tongue-breaker, but also a very nice example of practical education. It turned out, that Francysk Skaryna had a talent of bringing wise words to all kinds of people – from Kings to cops. “What should I do with these people?” asked the police officer in bewilderment after he had finished the reading. “Bravo! Wish’em good luck”, the commander’s voice in the walkie-talkie grumbled.
By Ales Kudrytski for ODB