author: Vedran Eraković

translation into English: Vesna Janković

Miroslav's Gospel is the oldest Serbian Cyrillic manuscript, written in Ustav and one of the most beautiful Slavonic manuscripts. It was written in elegant, extended letters and then the scribe thickened them all through to page 89 thus extending the pillars making the letters more squarish, something like bold variant in today's fonts. The reason for this thickening was either of the esthetic or of practical nature for easier reading. It seems as if the scribe thought that initially the letters were too light because the ink he used for thickening had greater concentration of iron in itself thus making it darker.

It was written and adorned at the end of the 12 th century for the Prince of Zachlumia Miroslav, brother of Stefan Nemanja, who ruled that region covering approximately the area of today's Herzegovina. Supposedly the Gospel was taken to Hilandar Monastery by Stefan Nemanja when he decided to move to the Mountain of Athos and to found a monastery.

Serbia was the area in which Byzantine and Roman culture permeated through each other making specific merge of east and west. This reflected not only on the architecture, in building the monasteries, but also on other fields such as literature. It probably influenced the way the Miroslav's Gospel was written and adorned for it contains a rich painted decorations done more in the western style then in the Serbian one, complex well-formed language and other diverse influence although majority of ornaments are saturated with Byzantine elements. Because of all this, upon its discovery at the end of the 19 th century the Gospel attracted the attention of both domestic and foreign public.

The public learned about the Gospel when the Russian Archimandrite Profirij Uspenskij stayed in Hilandar in 1845-46. He was so enchanted by the beauty of the book that he cut one leaf from it taking it to Russia where it has been kept ever since. We should mention here a Russian version of the event as well according to which the Hilandar monks in fact gave the leaf to Porfirij Uspenskij as a gift.

Stojan Novaković, that time director of the National Library in Belgrade, took the photo of that leaf in 1874 at the exhibition in Kiev and named the whole manuscript Miroslav's Gospel although it is in fact Gospel lectionary. From that moment on, the Gospel attracted increasing attention of the public. In 1896 King Aleksandar I Obrenović visited Hilandar donating lavishly on that occasion the monastery. As a token of gratitude the monks gave him what was most precious – the Miroslav's Gospel and Simeon Nemanja'a Foundation Charter, which later on was unfortunately lost. Just a few days after this event an unknown person arrived to Hilandar from Russia with the intention of buying the Gospel for enormous amount of money. But, as we already know, the Gospel was not in Hilandar any more.

From that moment on, after being kept for seven centuries in the silence of Monastery, the Gospel experienced very tumultuous history. First, it was kept at the Obrenović's court. In 1897 Ljubomir Stojanović printed in Vienna, on their expense, a photolithographic edition, which was the most advanced way of printing in those days.

It was printed in 300 copies, first 40 pages were in color and in identical format. Other pages were printed two and two together. They were printed in two colors: black and red. After Obrenović's death the Gospel mysteriously and temporarily disappeared appearing again in 1915. During the World War I it was evacuated from the country, as it was considered the most precious state property. Once it was brought back to the country it was kept in Prince Pavle's Museum from where, because of the World War II, it was taken to the Monastery Rača, near the Drina river. From there it was again secretly sent to Belgrade to be kept in the National Bank vaults. Of course all these events caused certain damages on the Gospel although it is relatively well preserved for it was not often used for liturgical purposes and both Hilandar monks and consequent generations paid it great attention. Its phototypic edition was made in 1998 in Johannesburg with all pages in color and original format, the edition having 299 copies. Today the original Gospel is kept in the National Museum in Belgrade while its phototypic editions are in the collections of the elite world libraries.

In 2005, the Gospel, as important segment of human creativity, from the civilization point of view, was included in the UNESCO program Memory of the World in which there are only 120 items such as Gutenberg's Bible, Schubert and Chopin works, Beethoven's Symphony No. 9.

This is in short the history of the most important and most beautiful Serbian Cyrillic book, written in the oldest Cyrillic letter – Ustav.

For several subsequent centuries after Gospel was done we used the traditional type of Cyrillic Ustav letter both for writing and later on for printing as well. For everyday use Skoropis was used, a variant derived from Ustav.

The letters for printing were cast from leader alloy by being first cut in steel and then impressed into softer metal plates used as matrixes for casting. Printing technology and making of printing face have been improved with time and we came all the way from the complicated procedure of letters casting to computer technology which makes the creation of typeface much easier. But the quality, as with any artistic work, depends almost exclusively on individual creating it and not so much on the technology used.

The first typefaces were made on the basis of the manuscript ones. The first Cyrillic printed book is Časlovac, printed in 1491 in Krakow, Poland. At the beginning of 1493 the printing works in Cetinje started operating but they ceased with work in 1496. In 1494 Oktoechos was printed which before that was printed in Krakow. All Krakow editions are in Russian Slavonic while Cetinje ones are in Serbian Slavonic language as all other books printed for the Orthodox Serbs during 16 th and 17 th centuries. In all our books that were printed at the time we have basically the same Ustav type of Cyrillic as it existed in the church manuscripts of those days.

Our old calligraphic scripts do not have either small letters or cursive. Ustav is the script with only capital letters and consequently today it can be used only for titles or short texts for it is not easy for reading and it is not economic for it requires larger consumption of paper in printing.

Real interpretations of old Cyrillic letters are rare. It is not just the question of transferring faithfully the letters' shapes into digital form but if there are also punctuation and all other marks that are their stylistic feature. The original letters do not contain additional marks, numbers, Vuk's letters, etc for they did not exist in that time and so it is not easy to make them in accordance with other signs. This is one of the reasons because of which despite the present technology advancement we have a small number of traditional Serbian Cyrillic scripts transformed into qualitative computer fonts.

The first “reconstruction” of Miroslav's script was done by Pantelija Stojićević in 1921, a lithographer employed in State Printing Works. In fact that typeface, save for its name, does not have any other similarity with original letter of Miroslav's Gospel. Allegedly, Panta Stojićević himself stated that he called his face as to the Gospel to honor it and not to represent the reconstruction of the original manuscript. There is also a Latin variant of this face which is very interesting having in mind that it happens more often that Latin forms are used for making Cyrillic ones.

Professor Stjepan Fileki reconstructed several of our old manuscripts letters including the one from Miroslav's Gospel. He carefully stylized the original forms and managed to preserve important and specific characteristics of the original manuscript – typeface “Miroslavljevo jevanđelje” is very elegant and solemn in the same manner as the original one. Apart from the letters from Vuk's alphabet, Fileki also made additional punctuation marks and even the letters of Church Slavonic Cyrillic which enable set up of old texts from the times when these letters were in use.

Beautiful books and typefaces were made even before computers were invented and today we find both exceptionally good and extremely bad solutions. Regardless of technology development and advantages it provides, the results will always depend upon the people using that technology and upon the way they use it.


Petar Đorđić: Istorija srpske ćirilice (History of Serbian Cyrillic), Zavod za izdavanje udžbenika SR Srbije, Beograd, 1971
Dušan Mrđenović, Veljko Topalović, Vera Radosavljević: Miroslavljevo jevanđelje – istorijat i komentari (Miroslav's Gospel – history and Comments), JP Službeni list SRJ, AIZ Dosije, Beograd, 2002
Jovanka Maksimović: Srpske srednjevekovne minijature (Serbian Medieval Miniatures), Prosveta, Beograd, 1983

We are grateful to
Swiss Cultural Programme
Serbia and Montenegro

for the support which enabled this translation.