RUSSIAN OLD BELIEVERS – Kniga Zertsalo tainstv i kontsa vsemirnogo [The Mirror of Sacraments and the End of the World], in Church Slavonic, ILLUMINATED MANUSCRIPT ON PAPER [Baltic region, c.1818].
288 leaves [of c.290?], 330 x 200mm, written and foliated in black ink in a regular semi-uncial Church Slavonic hand on two paper stocks, one watermarked “UFLP 1814”, the other watermarked “1818” with a ship carrying a figure with trident and a rampant lion brandishing a sabre; rubrics in red, initials in red, ONE HUNDRED LARGE ILLUMINATIONS, four of which double-page and folding, one half-page and the remainder full-page, all in pen and ink and watercolor except the last eight which are unfinished and in pen-and-ink or pencil only, all in a fine archaic style within a double-rule frame shaded in yellow, some leaves incorporating colored cut-outs from engravings (lacking leaves 118 and 134 but the text appears complete; repaired tear in leaf 165; double-page drawings repaired at the folds and fore-margin; some small marginal repairs; some marginal soiling). 19th-century Russian calf, the sides paneled in blind with foliate tools and a central arabesque, brass catches (neatly rebacked, with some repairs at the extremities; clasps and straps supplied). Provenance: Grebenshchikova Old Believers Church, Riga (stamps; cancelled by a later and indistinct 19th-century Cyrillic stamp) – E. Iu. Sheian (signature dated 1991) – Ursus Rare Books Ltd.
A fine, richly illuminated Old Believers manuscript. The manuscript tradition is fundamental to Old Believers; this ascetic strand of Russian orthodoxy rejected modernity, including the printed dissemination of spiritual texts. The iconography of Old Believers manuscripts is almost always characterized by a coarse or naïve style, but in the present manuscript the one hundred mostly full-page illuminations are notably fine and far more accomplished than usual. These highly allegorical scenes are filled with individuals on a journey to spiritual righteousness, sometimes jostling with fantastical creatures. Subjects often have an apocalyptic aspect – a characteristic of the often-persecuted Old Believers communities where, since the schism from the mainstream church in the mid-17th century, discussions of the Antichrist's presence or imminent arrival were always current. This text is sometimes attributed to the circle of Sergei Semenovich Gnusin (1756-1839), and reflects the doctrine of the Fedoseevtsy – a strict denomination of the Bespopovtsy (“priestless”) Old Believers.