The Eikosiphoinissa Manuscript 220 was among hundreds of objects taken from the Kosinitza Monastery by Bulgarian separatist troops in 1917. After a long journey, it ended up in the collection of the Museum of the Bible in Washington DC.
In recent years, the Museum of the Bible’s collection, originally owned by the Green family in Oklahoma City, founders of the arts and crafts chain Hobby Lobby, has been found to hold many objects that were smuggled out of their respective countries of origin or brought into the US improperly. A 2016 report in The Atlantic uncovers the family’s extensive collection and how it was built with little regard for the provenance, or background, of some of its items.
One such item is a rare 10th-11th-century hand-written gospel manuscript to the Greek Orthodox Monastery of the Virgin Eikossifinissa (also known as the Kosinitza Monastery) in northern Greece. The historic document was among hundreds of objects looted from the site by Bulgarian troops in 1917 during violence that broke out in the region.
In January, the Museum of the Bible informed Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew that it held one of the world’s oldest hand-lettered gospels, and subsequently offered to return it.
In response to the Museum’s gesture, Bartholomew said the museum can continue to display the work until October 2021. He also loaned the museum three more manuscripts from the same collection as a gesture of gratitude for the gospels’ return.
The museum, which opened in 2017, has started to more thoroughly investigate its collection and has returned other antiquities. Now closed, the museum had a pre-pandemic attendance of one million visitors per year.
The Eikosiphoinissa Manuscript 220 was among 431 manuscripts and 470 other works pillaged from the monastery’s library, including icons, vestments and liturgical objects.
The Museum of the Bible’s website links to a report on the atrocities committed in the region by Bulgarian partisans known as komitadji, as well as the looting carried out under the direction of a Czech war reporter, Vladimir Sis, who presented himself as a Bulgarian archaeologist.
The museum has created a vast timeline of the manuscript and has incorporated it into its online exhibition.
The objects were carried out on 24 mules, and were sold by Sis in the 1920s, finding their way into collections in Europe and the US. The Ivan Dujcev Center for Slavo-Byzantine Studies in Sofia holds around 300 of the looted manuscripts, in violation of the Treaty of Neuilly, which required Bulgaria to return all cultural objects taken during the First World War.
According to research done by the Museum of the Bible, the Eikosiphoinissa Manuscript 220 was sold in New York in 1958 by the dealer H. P. Kraus and purchased at Christie’s by the Green Collection in 2011.
Other manuscripts from the monastery have been tracked to the US, according to the Museum of the Bible’s research, where donors gave them to Princeton University, Duke University, the Morgan Library and the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago (LSTC).
In 2016, the LSTC handed back a rare ninth century manuscript of the entire New Testament (also known as Codex 1424), which had been bought by the seminary’s former president Levi Franklin Gruber from a European book dealer in 1920, and donated to the school by his widow.
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