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Book of the Month

April 2001

Armenian Prayer Scroll 


Sp Coll MS Gen. 1498

There is a brief entry on the last page of the published catalogue of the manuscripts in the library of the Hunterian Museum at Glasgow University, which reads "illustrated Armenian roll." This laconic note, which stands in sharp contrast to the wealth of detail deployed in the description of the 650 other manuscripts in the collection, obscures the fact that this manuscript is not only an item of considerable intrinsic value, but also a particularly well-preserved and finely executed example of its kind.

entire box

It is in fact an Armenian Prayer Scroll dating from 1661. This pahpanak or hamayil (phylactery) consists of a collection of prayers, biblical texts and magical formulae, and was intended to act as an amulet to protect its owner (who wrote his name on it and carried it on his person) from all ills and dangers. As is the case with most phylacteries, our manuscript is illuminated with portraits of saints and scenes from the life of Christ.

The manuscript is in the form of a long (approximately 492 x 8 cm) paper scroll written in one column. Twelve pieces of paper have been glued together to form this scroll. The scroll has been mounted in a wooden box with a glass viewing panel.  

The scroll begins with an illustration of a vase with flowers, followed by a cross flanked by two peacocks in orange, blue, gold, and grey colours. The first full length portrait in the scroll is of St. Nerses in liturgical vestments, holding the Gospels. This is followed by a prayer of St. Nerses the Gracious for the twenty-four  hours of the day.

St. Nerses

prayer for protection against the evil eye

The main script is a fine notrgir (i.e. cursive) with rubricated headings and initials, with some initial lines written in pale-purple ink. There are a number of zoomorphic and phyllomorphic initials. The owner, Ant’ani ordi Grigorin, has written his name into the prayers at several places, thereby effecting the protective properties. His hand - a fairly casual bolorgir (a larger, more formal script) - stands out clearly from the notrgir of the text; this indicates that he was not himself the scribe, but had the scroll written for him. The interpolated name can be seen clearly here, to the right of the heading in red ink to a prayer for protection against the Evil Eye, evil tongue, and the preservation of the Servant of God.

the crucifixion

The owner's name is found again at the end of this prayer. The second miniature follows, a depiction of the Crucifixion, with Mary and John standing at the foot of the cross. This is followed by a prayer to the Holy Cross of Christ, for preservation against all evil and the snare of the devil, and then by a writing concerning headache, and a prayer for travellers. Both items are written in a reticulated diaper pattern in black, with conventionalized blue and red flowers in the intervening spaces.

prayer for travellers

The provenance of the scroll is uncertain, but it is likely to have been acquired by Glasgow University through the bequest of Dr William Hunter (1718-83), the distinguished eighteenth century anatomist, obstetrician, Physician Extraordinary to Queen Charlotte, and avid collector of coins, medals, paintings, shells, minerals, books and manuscripts. As well as being  mentioned in the catalogue of the Hunterian Library (which was published in 1908, 125 years after Hunter's death and 101 years after the contents had been removed from London to Glasgow), we learn in an annotated catalogue, preserved at the British Library, that at the sale of the library of Thomas Martin of Palgrave on 28th April 1773, Hunter acquired three manuscripts. Two of these were mediaeval, but the third, lot 127 was ‘an Armenian roll’ for which he paid 1-11-6.

Madonna & child

The third miniature is shown to the left. It is a full length portrait of the Madonna and child in gold, blue and red. It is followed by a supplication to the Mother of God.

Six roundels containing portraits and texts are next. The first roundel is a half-length portrait of Saint Phocas wearing liturgical vestments, followed by prayers to the saint. The other illustrated roundel depicts the Archangel Gabriel. The angels Michael, Baraiel and Saghaniel are also mentioned in the accompanying prayer.

roundels of St. Phocas & the angel Gabriel

mounted warrior saint (St. George) 

The final miniature depicts a mounted warrior saint slaying a dragon; this probably represents Saint George. A lengthy catalogue of warrior saints, including Saint George and Saint Theodore, are addressed  in the accompanying prayer. The final texts of the scroll are a prayer against the terrors of the night, the evening prayer of Saint Gregory of Narek, and a writing concerning fever.


The scroll ends with a colophon which is dated  July, Armenian Era 1110, the equivalent of A.D. 1661. This is followed by the first words of the Lord's Prayer.

There are no other Armenian manuscripts in our Special Collections, but there is at least one other Armenian manuscript in Scotland, held in Edinburgh University Library (New College OR MS 131). It is a catechetical work dealing with the holy rites and doctrines of the Armenian Church, dated 20 January 1149 (= 1 February 1699). We, however, do possess several imprints published at Venice on the island of St. Lazarus by the Mekhitarist (Mxit’ariean) religious community, established there in 1717 by the Armenian Catholic priest Mxit’ar Sebastac’i.

A  major exhibition Treasures from the Ark: 1700 years of Armenian Christian Art is currently on show at the British Library (until 28 May).

Return to main Special Collections Exhibition Page

David Weston April 2001