Gospel book. Armenia, ca. 1675–1725. Calfskin, mother-of-pearl, gilt-metal, beads, metal thread, coins, semiprecious stones. The Morgan Library and Museum, MS M. 1149, Purchased on the Herzog Fund, 2006.

From the Exhibition:
Agents of Faith: Votive Objects in Time and Place

The cover of this Armenian Gospel book from the Morgan Library and Museum (MS M. 1149) testifies to the centuries-old enduring belief in votive offerings and their protective properties. Although the book itself was created between 1675 and 1725, the wide variety of treasures adorning it originate from distant regions, peoples, and time periods. The precious objects that make up its “treasure-binding” include thirteenth-century Seljuk coins, engraved mother-of-pearl plaques, a gilt-metal cross, fragments of ornamental jewelry, and thirty engraved seal stones.1 Many of these objects were considered to be talismanic or powerful because of their materials or engravings. Some pieces were made of “protective” materials such as mother of pearl and carnelian, while others were thought to bring good luck like ancient foreign coins, and yet others, such as the personalized seals, were thought to act as agents on behalf of the votive donor.2 Individually, every piece possesses a narrative unto itself—stories of men longing to be healed, women praying for the safety of their newborns, and legacies of long-forgotten kings. Together, they shed light on a cultural practice unique to Armenian Christians—the dedication of ex-votos to religious manuscripts.

Votive offerings have been a foundational part of Armenian Christianity for centuries. In the case of this manuscript cover, the ex-votos attached to it were likely intended as offerings meant to protect both the devotees who dedicated the objects and the book itself. Unlike those used in other sects of Christianity, Armenian gospel books are imbued with a distinct sense of agency. Because the gospels were considered a portal to the divine, they required special protection against evil forces. Sylvie Merian, a scholar of Armenian art who has extensively researched and written about the manuscript in question, claims that such books “were almost considered to be human, and there are numerous colophons in which it is recorded that the book had been ‘kidnapped’ by infidels, held for ransom, and that the community got together to pay the ransom and ‘free’ the book from capture.”3 Thus, the personhood of the gospel book and its reverential treatment by the public situate it in a liminal space between the sacred and the mundane. The book contains the word of God, which is holy; at the same time, the book itself should never be worshipped, as that would be idolatrous. The gospel book thus represents one level of remove from God, so that it can be regarded as a portal to the sacred but not the incarnation of the divine.

The manuscript cover aims to protect the divine word of God from profane corruption, because its role as a door to divinity makes it vulnerable to attack by negative forces, such as the Evil Eye or non-believers. Protection from heresy and evil has a long tradition of focus on confusing the eye. Belief in the powers of the Evil Eye, for instance, runs deep across Christian, Muslim, and Jewish cultures, and talismanic protection focuses on confusing it with uneven patterns and intense colors. According to Fady Hajal, “the power of evil wishes, and the magic power of certain people continue to be considered the cause of various states of ill health, including mental disturbances. To counter the effects of evil magic, people seek the protection of talismans.”4 This manuscript, with its role as a bridge between the profane and the sacred, represents a point of particular risk for such evil attacks. The cover of MS M. 1149 possesses an efficacious layer of protection, because the votive objects that adorn it confuse the eye with their unbalanced pattern and act as relics of true faith. The belief and talismanic properties embedded in each of the objects ensured the safety of sacred texts from outside threats.

Fig. 1. Detail of Gospel book with seal stone engraved with "ΜΑΣΑΛΑΧ.” Armenia, ca. 1675–1725. The Morgan Library and Museum, MS M. 1149, Purchased on the Herzog Fund, 2006. Photograph by Dr. Sylvie Merian.

To understand the purported talismanic power of the artifacts attached to the manuscript, it is helpful to consider a single case. Of the thirty seals attached to the manuscript’s back, or “lower,” cover, one engraved with the term “ΜΑΣΑΛΑΧ” poses an interesting mystery in terms of the meaning of its inscription and its physical difference from the other twenty-nine seals that adorn the book (Fig. 1).

Most of the seal stones on the manuscript follow the same pattern: they harbor formulaic language, such as “Servant of God” or the donor’s name, and possess text engraved in the mirror image, so that when they were used in their former lives as stamps, their seal would have been legible.5 On the seal seen above, however, the writing is not engraved in the mirror image and the word cannot be immediately identified, as its Greek letters do not amount to a recognizable Greek word. Dr. Merian herself explained that she and her colleagues could not make sense of the word: “[perhaps] it might be a proper name? Could it be a place name? If so, why is it on a seal stone? It’s very strange.”6

It must be noted that the Greek seal stone is not the only one written in languages other than Armenian: one other seal bears a Greek engraving, and nine seals are engraved in Ottoman Turkish, Persian, or Arabic.7 The addition of several Muslim seal stones presents scholars with an interesting dichotomy: why would they be used as votive offerings for a Christian manuscript. Merian responds to this issue as follows:

[The seals] were definitely Muslim owned, as indicated by the names inscribed on them, such as Umar or Muhammad son of Ali… the mere fact that it includes so many votive offerings strongly suggests that this gospel book was considered a miracle-working one. Perhaps these were given by severely ill Muslims who, in their desperation, appealed to it in search of a cure. This may not be as strange as it first seems—Christians, Muslims, and Jews often perform pilgrimages to the same holy sites.8

In order to better understand the engraved term, I began researching other forms that may bear such engravings intended to ward off the Evil Eye. As thresholds were considered to be areas particularly vulnerable to that form of evil magic, I investigated the possibility of a “ΜΑΣΑΛΑΧ” inscription on a building, and discovered a building with that same inscription located in the Anatolia region of Turkey.9 Interestingly, the Karamanlides people, who once populated that region, were Orthodox Christians who used the Greek alphabet to write in Turkish.10 When translated into Turkish, the Greek letters “ΜΑΣΑΛΑΧ” produces “maşallah,” a Turkish phrase that is still used today to ward off the Evil Eye. Michael Herzfeld, in his article “Meaning and Morality: A Semiotic Approach to Evil Eye Accusations in a Greek Village,” explains that the word has carried over to Greece. In describing linguistic “socially deviant habits” Herzfeld cites:

[A man] expresses open admiration for other peoples’ property; worse, he fails to add the protective phrase “Maşallah!” after doing so, so that the object of his praise is immediately ruined. He defends himself here on the grounds that he simply likes whatever is good of its kind, without necessarily coveting it; indeed, he denies that he has the power to damage with his “eye.”11

Herzfeld translates the Turkish to “what [wonders] God has willed” and explains that “while Greek villagers are aware that this is a Turkish word, as perhaps befits a prophylactic against grusuzia,12 they mostly do not understand it as an invocation to Allah, but describe it simply as a word that brings protection.”13 Thus, the term “maşallah” (or ما شاء الله‎, “Mashallah,” in Arabic) carries cultural meaning across different religions and regions—its talismanic properties are not limited to Islamic beliefs.

The cover of the Armenian gospel book offers a window into several distinct cultures and time periods. An examination of the relationship between the composite materials of the manuscript brings the piece’s kaleidoscopic nature to light. There is no single interpretation of MS M. 1149; its polymorphous nature allows for new and different insights to continually emerge, as its relics reveal an enduring belief in the protective power of ex-votos.

Darienne Turner, a curatorial assistant at the Baltimore Museum of Art and graduate of the master’s program, participated in associate professor Ittai Weinryb’s spring and fall 2016 In Focus seminars Ex Voto: Agents of Faith I & II and contributed to the exhibition catalogue Agents of Faith: Votive Objects in Time and Place.

1.Sylvie Merian, “Protection against the Evil Eye? Votive Offerings on Armenian Manuscript Bindings,” in Suave Mechanicals: Essays on the History of Bookbinding, edited by Julia Miller (Ann Arbor, MI: The Legacy Press, 2013), vol. 1, 42–93..

2.Ibid., 70–74.

3.Ibid., 53.

4.Fady Hajal, “Review of Majnun: The Madman in Medieval Islamic Society,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 26, no. 3 (1994): 544–46. http://www.jstor.org/stable/163726.

5.Merian, “Protection against the Evil Eye?,” 73.

6.Sylvie Merian, “Publication about MS M. 1149?” E-mail message to author, May 2, 2016.

7.Merian, “Protection against the Evil Eye?,” 73.

8.Ibid., 74.

9.See for example, the Karamanlidika inscription found on the door of a house in İncesu, Turkey.

Karamanlidika / Καραμανλήδικα / karamanlıca - writing: MAΣAΛAΧ; reading maşallah (found on door of house in Incesu, province Kayseri, Turkey) Katpatuka. “Karamanlidika.jpg.” Wikimedia Commons. June 16, 2006. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Karamanlidika.jpg.

10.Stelios Irakleous, “On the Development of Karamanlidika Writing Systems Based on Sources of the Period 1764–1895,” in Mediterranean Language Review, edited by Matthias Kappler, Werner Arnold, and Till Stellino (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2013),vol. 20, 57–95,

11.Michael Herzfeld, “Meaning and Morality: A Semiotic Approach to Evil Eye Accusations in a Greek Village,” American Ethnologist 8, no. 3 (1981): 560–74. doi:10.1525/ae.1981.8.3.02a00090.

12.Herzfeld defines this as “a ‘foreign’ condition of those (m. grusuzidhes, f. grusuzes) who lack

fortune and indeed lack social worth at all,” 565.

13.Ibid., 572.