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| Home | About Belarus | Famous Belarusians | Francysk Skaryna

Francysk Skaryna

Francysk Skaryna
Francysk Skaryna

Eminent philosopher, enlightener, humanist, writer, and Renaissance scholar from the ancient Belarusian city of Polotsk, Francysk Skaryna left his footprint in the history as the “father” of Eastern European book printing. He was the first to print the Bible in the Old Belarusian language in 1517.

Francysk Skaryna, “a son of the glorious city of Polotsk”

Francysk Skaryna was born into the family of wealthy merchant Luka in Polotsk around 1490. In those times, Polotsk was one of the major political and cultural centers of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.

Francysk learned to read and write at home, and later studied Latin at a school run by the Polotsk Bernardine Monastery founded on the initiative of Alexander I Jagiellon in 1498

In 1504, Francysk Skaryna began his studies in Krakow at one of the best European university of those times. He graduated two years later with a Bachelor of Arts degree.

In his student years, Francysk Skaryna also showed interest in medicine. His biographers note that he received a Master’s degree in Medicine from his alma mater, and graduated as a Doctor of Medicine from the University of Padua in 1512.

Francysk Skaryna’s natural talents and diligence were admired by many. The records of those times read that “the performance of the son of Luka Skaryna from Polotsk is commendable and excellent.” Today Francysk Skaryna’s portrait can be found at the university gallery among the portraits of other famous alumni from different countries of Europe.

Some researchers say that in 1512-1516, Francysk Skaryna was the private physician and secretary of John of the Lithuanian Dukes, a son of King Sigismund I the Old of Poland. Francysk met John when the latter studied at the University of Bologna.

Roots of book printing: first Bible in the Old Belarusian language

Francysk Skaryna ventured into printing business in Prague, where he founded a printing house with the support of merchants and art patrons from Polotsk and Vilnya. In 1517, he published The Psalter translated into the Old Belarusian language.

In the course of two years, the printing house in Prague issued 23 Bible books with illustrations (xylographic engravings, initials, and headpieces). The books also had forewords and comments by Francysk Skaryna who shared his enlightening ideas and views with readers.

In the early 1520s, Francysk Skaryna moved to Vilnya and opened the first printing house in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. It was there that he printed his Malaya Padarozhnaya Knizhytsa (The Little Travel Book) with acrostics and a calendar of solar and lunar eclipses, and Apostol (Apostle), a book about the acts and epistles of the apostles.

Malaya Padarozhnaya Knizhytsa was a collection of 18 small religious books for travelers, including The Psalter, Chasoslovets (Book of Hours), acathistos and canons. The book was decorated with unique engravings, headpieces, and initials. Nine of the 18 books had an afterword by Francysk Skaryna.

Francysk Skaryna’s Book Legacy

Thanks to enlightener and first book printer Francysk Skaryna, the Belarusian national book industry has enriched both the European and world culture. The Renaissance books of the famous Polotsk resident were well-known for high-quality printing, artistic features, engravings and ornamental decorations, prints and other elements.

One of the main features of Skaryna’s books were the author’s comments that helped people better understand the content and encouraged them to reflect on the meaning of the events described in the books of the Holy Scripture.

The eloquent forewords exhibiting the humanistic ideals and the world view of Francysk Skaryna included elements of other literary forms that later received further development in the Belarusian literature and written language.

Francysk Skaryna’s books were distributed in numerous handwritten copies. They influenced the evolution of the spiritual culture not only in the Belarusian lands, but also in the entire Grand Duchy of Lithuania, other Slavic countries, and contributed to the development of book printing in Russia.

Francysk Skaryna’s later life: traveling and medical practice

Francysk Skaryna dedicated the later years of his life to medical practice. In the 1520–1530s, he worked as a doctor and secretary of Bishop John of Vilnya. In 1529, at the invitation of Duke Albert of Prussia, Francysk Skaryna traveled to Konigsberg which was hit by an epidemic of a deadly disease.

In the 1530s Francysk Skaryna, already well-known for his participation in the diplomatic mission of Sigizmund I, accepted the invitation of King Ferdinand I to work as a royal doctor and a gardener of the gorgeous botanic garden that surrounded the magnificent Castle of Hradcany.

Francysk Skaryna died in around 1551. However, the precise date of his death and his burial place are unknown. In 1552 his son Simeon got the royal privilege certificate from King Ferdinand I, according to which he was given all the property of his father, the doctor Francysk Rus of Polotsk.

Francysk Skaryna and present days

Francysk Skaryna’s name, which ranges among the outstanding figures of the Renaissance epoch such as Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, and John Amos Comenius, has been given to streets in many Belarusian cities, and also to the university in Gomel. Numerous monuments, including a bronze sculpture near the National Library of Belarus, also perpetuate the memory of the first book printer.

The country’s state awards, Francysk Skaryna Order and Francysk Skaryna Medal, are presented in recognition of the contribution to the development and augmentation of spiritual and intellectual potential, the cultural heritage of the nation, and also achievements in humanitarian and charitable activity, national and state revival efforts…

Today Francysk Skaryna’s legacy includes 520 books, many of which are kept in Russia, Poland, the Czech Republic, Germany. All in all, the publications of the Belarusian first book printer are kept in nearly 50 countries, with some 28 copies in Belarus.

In 2017, the year marking the 500 years of the Belarusian book printing, the country managed to return a unique monument of the national culture – Malaya Padarozhnaya Knizhytsa (The Little Travel Book), which is believed to be the first book published on the territory of the present-day Belarus.

The major events of 2017 will include the presentation of the 20-volume facsimile edition Francysk Skaryna’s Book Legacy, the Grand Prix winner of the Art of the Book contest, a big exhibition project Francysk Skaryna and His Epoch, the international TV project Francysk Skaryna in Foreign Languages and the documentary Pershadruk that will be screened during the Belarusian Literature Day celebrations in Polotsk

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