A Bible scholar and printer, Skaryna lacks renown because he remained loyal to the structures of the Orthodox Church.
THIS year, the 500th anniversary of his “95 Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences”, Martin Luther’s legacy is being re-examined. A cacophony of events, ranging from exhibitions to church services, will consider the global impact of the Reformation. But 1517 is worth remembering for other reasons, too. In that year, Francysk Skaryna published a book of Psalms in his native Belarusian: it was one of the first to use the Cyrillic script. Only two years later, he had translated large swathes of the Bible. Beyond the borders of Belarus, where monuments, streets and university buildings bear his name, Skaryna is one of the forgotten talents of the age.
Born in 1486 in Polotsk (then part of Poland-Lithuania), Skaryna lived an outstandingly rich life. As a young man, he went to Italy and became the first Eastern European to graduate as a Doctor of Medicine at Padua. Over a 40-year career, Skaryna variously tried his hand at medicine, philosophy and horticultural design. He also travelled widely, visiting Russia and spending time with the Duke of Prussia: there are even rumours that he met Martin Luther himself.
Skaryna was likely raised as Catholic, but he devoted his life to the study of Eastern Orthodoxy. He was the first to translate the Bible into an East Slavic vernacular—until then, the Orthodox Church had disseminated information in Church Slavonic, an arcane liturgical language. It is hard to overstate Skaryna’s achievement. Reformers such as John Wycliffe had translated the Bible (and been ruthlessly repressed) during medieval times; Skaryna was among the first Renaissance humanists to take on the task again. Indeed, his vernacular Bible preceded Luther’s by several years.
Admittedly, the result is not entirely pure. Belarusian was still in its infancy, so elements of Church Slavonic remain, as do borrowings from Czech. Still—like Luther in German—Skaryna laid the foundations of the modern language, especially as he was only the second scholar to print using the Cyrillic script, a feature of modern Belarusian. His elegant prefaces are cited as the first examples of Belarusian poetry.
Skaryna did not translate the Bible merely as an academic exercise: he wanted ordinary people to read the word of God and determine its meaning for themselves. For Skaryna, the Bible was “written openly in that [it] can be understood by not only doctors and learned people, but by any simple common man.” His “Little Travellers’ Book”, a book of prayers, was designed for laymen. Elsewhere, Skaryna addressed his readers directly, reminding them that the book of Proverbs “contains the spirit of wisdom”. The similarity here to Luther—who claimed that a “simple layman armed with the scriptures” was superior to a cleric without them—is noteworthy.
Comparisons between Skaryna and Luther can be taken further. Like the Protestant reformers, Skaryna understood the importance of new technology in spreading his message. He ran the first printing press in Vilnius, and his designs were influential even beyond Belarus’s borders. Skaryna was an excellent engraver, too: his vivid woodcuts, featuring Biblical figures in traditional Belarusian costume, meant that illiterate citizens could begin to grasp religious ideas. The innovations sweeping Europe did not stop at the Vistula: embodied by Skaryna, Eastern Europe had a splendid Renaissance culture.
Skaryna lacks international prominence because there was never an Orthodox Reformation. When he died in the early 1550s, he had not shattered his world as decisively as Luther had. In fact, Skaryna himself would probably have baulked at the idea. Despite his groundbreaking use of language and art, he had no desire to demolish the structure of the Church entirely. After all, his translation of the book of Judith—an accepted text in Orthodoxy and Catholicism, but not considered canonical by Protestants—emphasises his ultimate loyalty to the established order. Martin Luther has become infamous for completely altering European history; Skaryna had no such pretensions.
Nonetheless, Skaryna has remained popular among his fellow Belarusians. Like Luther—who was held up by Bismarck and the Nazis as an early German nationalist—Skaryna received the attention of 19th-century nationalists eager to highlight the “first Belarusian intellectual”. Skaryna’s work in Vilnius was also useful: it gave Belarusian irredentists in the 1920s an excuse to claim the city as their own (it was then in Poland, and is now the Lithuanian capital). He enjoys top billing in Belarusian society; a 2012 poll found he was their most popular son.
Events celebrating the 500th anniversary of his first translations are helping to promote Skaryna’s work internationally. UNESCO has organised a series of commemorations examining his influence on Belarusian literature, printing and mass culture. About time: Francysk Skaryna should sit beside Luther as one of the great figures of European culture—even if Luther’s radicalism means that he will always win more plaudits abroad.