Among the myriad of national holidays celebrated by the worldwide Slavic community, one date stands out on its own for reasons of historical significance and cultural synthesis. Each year on May 24th more than 250 million users of the Cyrillic script around the world commemorate the legacy of Saint Cyril and Saint Methodius in recognition of their immense role in the cultural development of all Slavic peoples. While discussing what kind of content we should launch our typography blog with, it almost immediately dawned on the entire team that any future analysis/discussion needs to be framed within our own position, and for that, we need to turn back the page over 1,100 years.
Cyrillic evolved from an earlier script called Glagolitic, developed by Cyril and Methodius — two brothers from Thessaloniki, in what is now Greece, but in the 9th century was at the core of the Byzantine Empire. We know the siblings by their monastic names, but the pair were born as Constantine and Michael and came from a well-respected family – their father Leo was an important military commander in the Thessalonica theme (the Empire’s preferred form of administrative division). The location is not without its significance, as unlike the Anatolian themes, which existed in a state of relative stability, Thessalia was surrounded by enemies from the north and the west, and as such was exposed to a variety of cultures.
It wasn’t until 862 that the story began in earnest though, as the two monks were sent to Great Moravia at the request of its ruler Prince Rastislav. The landlocked Central European country would eventually last for less than a century but is considered a major milestone in terms of Slavic cultural propagation.
Within a year of their arrival, Cyril and Methodius had begun translating the Bible into what would eventually become Old Church Slavonic, and this brought them into conflict with Western church officials. Seeing no other possibilities, the duo took the high road — they decided to develop an entirely new alphabet that could be used specifically for Slavic liturgy.
Not wanting to act as a divider between different Christian denominations, the brothers traveled to Rome after an invitation by Pope Nicholas I, in an attempt to find balance. Great Moravia eventually faded into history, however, and the Western Slavs were brought out of the Eastern Orthodox fold for good.
And this might have been the end of the tale, had it not been for a group of disciples that spread out and traveled southeast, to the First Bulgarian Empire, which Boris I had recently converted from paganism to Christianity. Chief among these educators were Naum and Clement, who were warmly welcomed by the knyaz (prince), himself in desperate search of a way to preserve Bulgaria’s independence from the Byzantine Empire.
Naum was sent to the capital Pliska, while Clement traveled to Ohrid (nowadays in Northern Macedonia), and both set about teaching. At some point in the last decade of the 9th century, a new and simpler form of the script arose from the work of these disciples — Cyrillic.
The earlier manuscript forms, known as ustav, were based around Greek uncial letters, before evolving further as the Bulgarian Empire officially embraced Old Church Slavonic liturgy during the reign of Simeon the Great. Naum and Clement both continued working in the Ohrid area and were canonized by the Bulgarian Church shortly after their deaths, becoming the country’s first ‘native’ saints.
In the following centuries, Cyrillic gradually came to dominate Glagolitic and started spreading north, eventually becoming the lingua franca for most of the Balkans and Eastern Europe. We developed regional variations to suit differences in pronunciation and local culture, with the individual scripts continuing to exist in more or less the same form until the turn of the 17th century, and the time of Peter the Great, Russia’s first Emperor.
Peter I is today remembered as one of history’s greatest reformers, responsible for Russia’s entry into the global political and cultural scene as a modern nation. Ivan IV, more commonly known as Ivan the Terrible, had already attempted some revisions in the second part of the 16th century, but actual change only came after Peter’s voyage to the Netherlands and England — the so-called Grand Embassy.
During his 18-month trip, the Emperor observed numerous technological and societal novelties that he would later successfully implement back in his homeland. He used the knowledge of shipbuilding, acquired in Amsterdam (at the time the largest shipyard in the world), to enlarge the still-fledgling Russian Navy. Customs with regard to clothing shifted, long beards were banned, the new capital of Saint Petersburg was founded on the banks of the Neva River and built in the image of Western cities, even the calendar changed to Julian.
Amidst all these sweeping changes, Peter also authorized the use of westernized letterforms with a special decree, issued on January 29, 1710, after over three years of work that he was heavily involved in. The document introduced new letters and abolished others completely while adopting European-style punctuation and the use of capital letters. The ustav (uncial) had by then long become a poluustav (semi-uncial), and would henceforth be used solely for religious purposes.
For everything secular, there would exist a new code of rules – the grazhdanskiy shrift (civil type) — which would emerge from Peter’s initial version in the decades to come. After the southern Slavic states’ liberation from Ottoman occupation in the 19th century, this standardized Russian-form eventually returned south, in a way ‘completing’ a cycle that had begun more than 1,000 years earlier with the work of Clement and Naum.
The few examples of Bulgarian Cyrillic literature printed during the nearly 500 years of Ottoman rule came from abroad and relied on Russian Cyrillic metal typefaces, which heavily influenced the visual appearance of book layouts in the Slavic world. This status quo continued until the post–World War II period when several prominent Bulgarian artists and type designers began realizing the importance of producing typefaces on their own. The emergence of a new and localized system would allow for a better grasp of the country’s true linguistic and cultural traditions through the relation of printed letters, speech, and the flow of handwriting.
One of the leading figures in the movement was Boris Angelushev, an alumnus of the Berlin Academy of Arts, who encouraged others to join him upon his return to Bulgaria. This emerging collective included names such as Vasil Barakov, Aleksander Poplilov, Milka Peykova, Vladislav Paskalev, Olga Yoncheva, Ivan Kiosseff, Kancho Kanev, Todor Vardjiev, Stefan Gruev, and Kiril Gogov. Another major figure in our country’s contemporary type design history was Vasil Yonchev, who conducted a detailed analysis of Paleographic, Old Bulgarian, Glagolitic and Cyrillic scripts, coming away with insightful conclusions on the merits of their graphic coherence, synthesis, and cultural philosophy.
This so-called ‘first Bulgarian type wave’ left a lasting mark on the generations that followed, and all of us font designers at the Fontfabric Type Foundry are proud to carry on the mantle and add to centuries of tradition by cultivating our own ‘generation’ of type artists. In the decade since our founding, Fontfabric has remained at the forefront of Cyrillic typeface development and integration as an advocate for continuous development and historical awareness.
We have always placed a special emphasis on creating diverse, high-quality commercial typefaces with support for extended Cyrillic scripts, and this helped create some of our latest releases, including Uni Neue, Singel, Noah, and Squad. Last year we also published Slovic, which incorporates characteristic elements from Old Church Slavonic, and is the first in a series of experimental variable typefaces that aim to explore the traits and distinct features of Cyrillic type development.
And we’ve got plenty more to show, but not just yet – stay tuned to find out more in the coming months!