18th c. Founder of Russian Science Was Deeply Orthodox Who Wrote Odes on Psalms

Originally appeared at: Global Orthodox

What has nearly become a lost art in the West, is still alive and thriving in Russia; the art of composing, memorizing, and reciting poetry. In many social circles across Russia, people will often come together for evenings of memorized recitation; often reading side by side both old well-loved poems and new original compositions. 

Lomonosov, an outstanding 18th century scientist and artist, is widely regarded as the first Russian poet, who “started the Russian literature”.

Mikhail Lomonosov (1711-1765), was born to a peasant family, but due to his passion for learning, he was able to get a higher education in Russia and Germany, to become one of the greatest scholars of his time. He made immense contribution to chemistry, physics, mineralogy, history, art, philology, optical devices, etc. Lomonosov is the one who discovered the atmosphere of Venus and the law of conservation of mass in chemical reactions. He was the one who revived the ancient art of mosaics, he developed the grammar of the Russian language and – he wrote poetry, mostly, solemn and spiritual odes. Lomonosov was also a deeply religious man, so his odes were often based on his spiritual and scientific reflections. 

Some of his odes were inspired by Psalms, like the “Rendition of Psalm 14” (Psalm 15 in Protestant and Anglican Book of Psalms). One of the most popular spiritual odes by Mikhail Lomonosov is the one, titled “An Evening Reflection Upon God's Grandeur Prompted by the Great Northern Lights”. 

Here is its English version, beautifully presented by Andrew Wachtel, Ilya Kutik and Michael A. Denner.

1

The day conceals its brilliant face,

And dark night covers up the fields,

Black shadows creep upon the hills,

Light's rays recede from us.

Before us gapes a well of stars -

Stars infinite, well fathomless.

2

A grain of sand in ocean swells,

A tiny glint in endless ice,

Fine ash caught in a mighty gale,

A feather in a raging fire,

So I am lost in this abyss,

Oppressed by thoughts profound.

3

The mouths of wise men call to us:

"A multitude of worlds dwell there,

Among them burning suns untold,

And peoples, and the wheel of time:

There, all of nature's strength

Exists God's glory to proclaim"

4

But where, O nature, is your law?

Dawn breaks from out of northern lands!

Is this the home of our sun's throne?

Or are the icy oceans burning?

Behold, cold fire envelops us!

Behold, now day has entered night.

5

O thou, whose lively gaze can see

Into the book of law eternal,

For whom the smallest part of things

Reveals the code in all of nature,

Thou comprehendeth planets' course,

Now tell us what disturbs our souls?

6

Why do these bright rays sparkle in the night?

Why does fine flame assault the land?

Without a thundercloud can lightning

Rise from the earth up toward the heavens?

How can it be that frozen steam

Gives birth to fire from winter's depths?

7

There, oily darkness battles water,

Or rays of sunlight sparkle bright,

Bend toward us through the thickened air;

Or do the peaks of stout hills glow,

Or have the sea winds ceased their song,

And smooth waves struck the space.

8

Regarding what lies right before us

Thine answer's full of doubts

O, tell us, how enormous is the world?

What lies beyond the smallest stars?

Are thou aware of all creation's end?

Tell us, how great is our Creator?

© A. Wachtel, I. Kutik and M. Denner

This piece was written in 1743, at the beginning of the reign of Elizaveta Petrovna, the youngest daughter of Peter the Great.

We are publishing below an abridged version of an article from the Foma Orthodox Christian magazine, which introduces its readers to Lomonosov and his time, giving an idea what is it that makes him a symbol for Russian people. 

As the article is machine translated, we apologize in advance for any possible errors.

The twenty-year reign of the empress Elizaveta Petrovna (1741-1761) was a relatively stable period in the history of the Russian 18th century. In many respects she adhered to the principles of her father's rule, and was his ideological heir. The cultural and political decisions she made were in many ways quite innovative. One of the most important features of her reign was her desire to introduce Russia to enlightened absolutism, which would reach its climax in the time of Catherine the Great. 

Just like her famous father Peter the Great, Elizaveta began to focus on the national interests of the Russian Empire and concentrated on consolidating Russian statehood. Her rule was a time of matching the European experience and ways brought in by Peter I, with Russian traditions. The empress dismissed many prominent foreigners and appointed Russian political and cultural figures to leadership positions. She brought into service and gave a real opportunity of growth to members of the lower classes.


Georg Christoph Groot. Portrait of Empress Elizaveta Petrovna in black masked dominoes with a mask in her hand.

During Elizaveta’s reign, education and science flourished. The main academic center was the Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg, which included a large number of Russian scholars. In 1755, owing to efforts by Ivan Shuvalov and Mikhail Lomonosov, the Moscow University was opened with three faculties (philosophical, legal and medical) as well as the University printing house.


Moscow University in 1820

Elizaveta patronized not only culture and science, but also the Church. The position of the Orthodox clergy and the Holy Synod was greatly strengthened. During her reign any deviation from the Orthodox faith was considered a crime. The empress strictly monitored the activities of the clergy and intensified the campaign to eradicate heresies.

It was the time when first professional writers - Trediakovsky, Cantemir, Sumarokov – appeared on the stage. Mikhail Lomonosov stood out even against this shining backround. He wrote his first solemn ode to the capture by Russian troops of the Turkish fortress of Khotin in 1739. According to the literary 19th century critic Vissarion Belinsky, this poem marked "the beginning of Russian literature”.


Portrait of Lomonosov by E. Fessar and K.A. Wortman, 1757.

Despite the fact that Lomonosov was immersed in the academic, secularized environment, he never contrasted scientific knowledge with faith, never doubted the truth of the Church teaching. That is what he wrote referring to the relationship between religious dogmas and scientific ideas about the picture of the world: "... physical reasoning about the structure of the world serves to glorify God and Faith….”  

The origins of Lomonosov's religiosity can be traced to his early childhood. His mother was the daughter of a deacon and wanted her son to devote himself to the service of God. Mikhail was taught to read and write by the Psalter and the Book of Hours, and attended church services. On his way to Moscow from his native Kholmogory, the future poet stopped at St. Anthony-Siysky monastery and for some time served there as a psalmist. While at the Slavic-Greco-Latin Academy, he not only read books in theology, but also held a position as an acolyte in the Zaikonospassky monastery. Throughout his life Lomonosov occasionally had some hesitations about the Orthodox faith, he criticized the ignorance, greediness, hypocrisy and all the excesses of the Orthodox clergy, who forgot the commandments of God.

However, Lomonosov remained an Orthodox Christian, a sincere believer, and often praised God, which is reflected in his spiritual odes.

One of the first Russian language grammar textbooks, compiled by M. V. Lomonosov in 1755


Monument to Mikhail Lomonosov on Sparrow Hills




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