The Moscow Manuscript with the Akathistos Hymn (GIM Syn. gr. 429)
The Moscow Manuscript with the Akathistos Hymn (GIM Syn. gr. 429)

By Olga Yunak | Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, CA


The Greek manuscript Synodal gr. 429, now housed at the State Historical Museum in Moscow, is a small book measuring 24 x 17.5 cm. This manuscript contains several poetic compositions celebrating the Virgin Mary. The texts include (in that order) the Akathistos Hymn, the Office of the Akathistos with the Canon to the Virgin by Joseph the Hymnographer (d. 886), the Canon of the Annunciation, and the Penitential Canon to the Immaculate Virgin by the Emperor Theodore II Doukas Laskaris (r. 1254–58), the two troparia written by the Patriarch Philotheos Kokkinos (o. 1353–54/5; 1364–76), and the Contritional Hymn by the Emperor Leo VI the Wise (r. 886–912).

In this manuscript, the text of the Akathistos Hymn receives the most prominence. It is lavishly decorated with twenty-four miniatures, equal to the number of stanzas in the hymn. Each miniature is set against a rich golden background and framed by a design of green vegetation. The large initial letters of the text feature curious zoomorphic figures and elaborate floral designs in a peculiar entanglement of forms. The text is written in Greek miniscule in a combination of light brown ink and gold. Based on the methods of book production, some researchers believe that the manuscript was produced at the elite scriptorium of the Hodegon Monastery in Constantinople and attribute the script to Joasaph, the scribe who also had worked on a 1370 manuscript containing political and religious writings by Emperor John VI Kantakouzenos (r. 1347–54) (Par. Gr.1242). Another theory, however, disputes the 14th century dating of the book and places its production in the early 15th century based on the stylistic characteristics of the script. Although the dating of the book is disputed, as is the identity of its compiler, researchers generally agree that the Moscow manuscript represents one of the finest deluxe objects produced in late Byzantium.


The Moscow manuscript belongs to the group of the four lavish manuscripts that contain the text of the Akathistos Hymn with illuminations. The Greek manuscript Escorial R.I.19 from the Real Biblioteca in Madrid is almost identical in contents and illustrations to the Moscow book (with some stylistic exceptions). In the 16th century, the Escorial came into the possession of the Spanish King Philip II (r. 1556–98). The other two manuscripts in this group are the Bulgarian Tomić Psalter from the State Historical Museum in Moscow (Muz. 2752) and the Serbian Psalter from the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek in Munich (Slav. 4).

The intended recipient of the Moscow manuscript is unknown. The small size of the book, however, suggests it was designed for a private user. According to one theory, this volume was meant as a gift to Emperor John VI Kantakouzenos after his deposition from the throne in 1354. Another theory suggests that the manuscript was destined to stay in Hodegon as a gift of personal supplication to the Virgin Mary. The Hodegon monastery at that time was an important Marian site and housed the most venerated icon of the Eastern Christian world, the Virgin Hodegetria. Stanza 23 of the Moscow book is accompanied by an illumination showing a procession with the Hodegetria icon.

Later, the Moscow book found itself in the possession of Tsar Alexei Michailovich of Russia (r. 1645–76) (father of Peter the Great, r. 1682–1725). The record in the customs register of 1662 indicates that the elders of the Church of the Holy Virgin of the Life-Giving Spring in Galata sent the Moscow manuscript to the Russian tsar. The letter accompanying the gift described a devastating fire in the monastery. The book was offered to the tsar in the hope that he would become a royal patron for the monastery. This letter reveals the Byzantine and post-Byzantine habit of re-fashioning objects of luxury as political gifts. Although we do not have direct evidence that the Moscow book was ever used as a political gift before 1662, it is quite possible that the book was initially produced with political intent in mind. The theory becomes even more plausible if we compare this manuscript with other luxurious works of art that were part of a power play within an elaborate system of diplomacy, widespread among contemporary ruling circles.

Two such examples are the Greek manuscript (Louvre MR 416), a copy of the works of Dionysios the Areopagite (1st century ?), which is now kept in the Musée du Louvre in Paris, and the Staurotheke of Philotheos (1141), a reliquary designed to hold a relic of the true cross, now housed in the Moscow Kremlin. Both items are extravagant works of art fashioned as political gifts. The early 14th-century Dionysios manuscript was updated with lavish illuminations, one of them being the family portrait of the emperor. In 1407, the manuscript was sent to Paris as a diplomatic gift in an effort to remind the West of Dionysios’s Greek origins and secure financial support. The Philotheos reliquary, as the legend holds it, was a political gift from the Patriarch Philotheos to the Grand Duke of Moscow Ivan (r. 1353–59). The political protégé of Philotheos, Metropolitan Alexi (o. 1354–78), brought this gift from Constantinople in 1354 as a symbol of patriarchal blessing.

The Moscow manuscript, too, acquires the status of a precious gift imbued with political intent when placed in the context of the political interplay among royal courts. Thus, this manuscript can be seen as a carefully curated collection of the popular Marian poetry dressed in luxurious robes. Image and text cease to perform their basic functions—to show and to tell—but rather become ornamentation to showcase the luxury of the book. The poetic compositions function similarly to the epigrams inscribed on objects. The miniatures, too, acquire a new status: that of precious stones.

The question that researchers still ask is why such an extravagant object was produced in the context of the decline of the empire’s former powers and severe financial deprivations. Perhaps we may start answering this question if we consider the Moscow book along with other luxury objects that participated in the economy of political exchanges.

Further Reading

Prokhorov, G. M. “A Codicological Analysis of the Illuminated Akathistos to the Virgin (Moscow, State Historical Museum, Synodal Gr. 429).” Dumbarton Oaks Papers 26 (1972): 237–52.

This article represents one of the first substantial discussions of the composition of the manuscript, the production date, and the potential donor. The author places the manuscript in the 14th century and names Philotheos Kokkinos not only as a donor but also as someone who closely supervised the compiling of the book.

Mokretsova, I. P. Materialy i tekhnika vizantiiskoi rukopisnoi knigi [Materials and techniques of Byzantine manuscripts]. Moscow: Indrik, 2003.

This work provides an in-depth view of the materials and the circumstances of production of the book. The author attributes the Moscow book to the scriptorium in Hodegon.

Spatharakis, Iohannis. The Pictorial Cycles of the Akathistos Hymn for the Virgin. Leiden: Alexandros Press, 2005.

This book gives a comprehensive survey of iconography of the Akathistos Hymn and locates the Moscow book in relation to other monuments in different media containing the visual illustration to the hymn.

Hilsdale, Cecily J. Byzantine Art and Diplomacy in an Age of Decline. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014.

This work offers a new appreciation for the habit of late Byzantium to refashion valuable works of art into objects capable of carrying out political intent on behalf of the giver.

Dobrynina, Elina, and Patricia Donegan. “The Akathistos Hymn.” In A Companion to Byzantine Illustrated Manuscripts, edited by Vassiliki Tsamakda, 328–48. Leiden: Brill, 2017.

This chapter is the most recent comprehensive analysis of the manuscript updated to reflect the findings of the past decades.

This contribution was sponsored by the Mary Jaharis Center for Byzantine Art and Culture at Hellenic College Holy Cross.

Olga Yunak, "The Moscow Manuscript with the Akathistos Hymn (GIM Syn. gr. 429)," Mapping Eastern Europe, eds. M. A. Rossi and A. I. Sullivan, accessed June 3, 2023,