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Commemoration day of Movses Tatevatsi in the Holy Mother of God church in Yerevan

The Powerful Gospels (Zoravor Avetaran) is presented at the commemoration day of Movses Tatevatsi in the Holy Mother of God (Surb Astvatsatsin) Church in Yerevan, Armenia. After the liturgy, pilgrims approach the miraculous Gospel Book with their prayers, requests, and vows. Photo by Konrad Siekierski

  • Kissing the Book, Making a Vow: An Illustrated Story of an Armenian Religious Practice

    Contrary to English, the Armenian word for “pilgrimage” has nothing to do with the Latin peregre—“to or from abroad.” Instead of stressing distant travel and social estrangement, Armenians have focused on a vow as a constitutive element of pilgrimage. Hence, they call a pilgrim an ukhtavor (the one who made a vow) and a pilgrimage an ukhtagnatsutyun (a journey to fulfill a vow).

    Armenian Christianity, as represented by the Armenian Apostolic Church, belongs to Oriental Orthodoxy—an ancient branch of Christian faith formed as a result of unresolved disputes of the fifth century over the interrelation of divine and human nature in Christ. Today, it is the dominant religion among Armenians in their homeland and worldwide diaspora. The Apostolic Church boasts to represent the first Christian nation (the Armenian kingdom adopted Christianity as a state religion at the turn of the fourth century) and maintains a rich tradition that includes splendid art and architecture, elaborate liturgical forms steeped with spiritual chants, its own rendering of pilgrimage, and a special veneration of the Bible.

    The Bible was the first book translated into Armenian using a new alphabet, developed for this purpose by St. Mesrop Mashtots around 405. From the early days of Armenian Christianity, Gospel Books (the first four books of the New Testament) and other religious texts were commissioned and hand-copied as powerful votive offerings that could bring salvation to and perpetuate memory about their sponsors, owners, and executors. Wealthy but childless individuals could adopt a Gospel Book as their “child in Zion.” Individual copies of manuscript Gospels became famously endowed with miraculous healing powers, analogous to icons in Orthodox Christianity or figures of saints in Catholicism.      

    It is then no surprise that the Armenian faithful would make vows to go on pilgrimage to such powerful Gospel Books. In today’s Republic of Armenia—a post-Soviet country in the mountains of South Caucasus—some centuries-old Gospels are family heirlooms kept in private houses or adjacent chapels and venerated as “home saints” (tan surb). Many others were gathered over the last six decades in the Matenadaran (the Mesrop Mashtots Institute of Ancient Manuscripts)—a state repository, museum, and a research center located in Yerevan, the country’s capital. From there, several Gospel Books have been loaned out in recent years for religious feasts of the Armenian Church. On such occasions, they enter the church in solemn procession, stay at the altar during the festive liturgy, and then are taken down from the altar to make them available for pilgrims’ veneration.

    Regardless of where pilgrims go—to private houses and chapels in the countryside or larger feasts held in churches—they approach the holy books with their prayers, requests, and thanksgivings. Many lay their hands or foreheads on them, kiss them, or even ask to have them placed on their heads or parts of the body affected by illness. They can also touch the books with scarves, neck crosses, pictures of family members, or prayer books in hope that these personal objects will be charged with a whit of sacred power. All these practices point to a belief many Armenians have in Gospel Books: in their power of making visible the invisible, the power of making wishes and vows come true, and the power that these sacred objects can share with those who visit them.

    In a broad sense, making a pilgrimage to a holy book points to the central role of the material in creating and mediating the religious experience, both in terms of how this experience is embodied and how objects deemed sacred partake in it. Nowadays, this pivotal role of the material is often constrained by the dominant regimes of secular modernization—which “neatly boxed modern religion as belief,” as Sally Promey puts it—and of visual culture, which values sight over other senses. In contrast, Armenian believers approach Gospel Books not only as texts to be read but as sacred objects to be visited and touched.

    Let me now follow Arthur Brisbane’s famous advice—“Use a picture. It’s worth a thousand words”— and take you on a journey to Armenian Gospel Books and their faithful.

    Shurishkan Gospels

    The Shurishkan Gospels is the most renowned miraculous manuscript in Armenia today. Copied in the late sixteenth century, it stayed for more than three centuries in the Armenian village of Shurishkan (today’s Iran), from which it took its name and where it gained its fame.

    According to one nineteenth-century account, “When enemies attacked and plundered the village, the guardians of the Gospel hid the book in a water source, covered it with sand, and fled. When they came back, they found the Gospel dry and intact. In times of trouble, … people came to see it, some of them barefoot, they kissed the manuscript, killed sheep next to it…. Many sick people came to the Gospel and ... were cured.”

    In the early 1970s, Armenians from Shurishkan migrated to Soviet Armenia, taking their holy relic with them. In Armenia, they donated the manuscript to the Matenadaran. Since the early 2000s, the Shurishkan Gospels has been participating in annual feasts in the church of St. George (Surb Gevorg) in Mughni, some twelve miles from Yerevan. This feast serves as an occasion for both a religious pilgrimage and a reunion of Armenian migrants from Iran.

    Photo by Konrad Siekierski, courtesy of the Mesrop Mashtots Institute of Ancient Manuscripts

    Gospel Book with votive offerings

    A manuscript Gospel Book with votive offerings attached to its cover. In the past, Armenians often nailed crosses, plaques, seal stones, jewelry, coins, and other objects to the bindings of powerful Gospels. These ex-votos were usually placed without any specific order, often overlapping or attached to chains hanging from the cover. They established a direct relationship between the book and those searching access to its power. Plaques shaped like eyes, hands, or legs were attached in hopes of curing illnesses affecting those body parts. The prevalence of eye- and hand-shaped plaques suggests that these offerings could function as amulets protecting the books against the evil eye and other misfortunes.

    Photo by Konrad Siekierski, courtesy of the Mesrop Mashtots Institute of Ancient Manuscripts

    Charr Khapan

    A medieval manuscript Gospel Book venerated as a home saint in the Ararat region of Armenia. This book is known under the name of Charr Khapan, The Hindrance against Evil. Its chapel is a popular pilgrimage site, visited by the sick, the fearful—in traditional Armenian culture, vah (fear) is perceived as a cause of many mental and physical disturbances—and victims of spell and black magic.

    As with the previous picture, the long-existing faith in the power of this book is attested by ex-votos nailed to its cover. In some instances, including the Charr Khapan, the popularity of a shrine is further strengthened by a grace of healing or divination bestowed by a home saint upon its guardian.

    Photo by Konrad Siekierski

    Gilded Gospels

    The Gilded Gospels (Voskekogh Avetaran) is an early printed Gospel Book venerated as a home saint in the Shirak region of Armenia. As with many other sacred books, it was brought to its current location by Armenians escaping persecutions in the Ottoman Empire in the early nineteenth to early twentieth century. Like some other venerated Gospels, it bears the name derived from its appearance, in this case a lavishly gilded cover. Other popular names include the Red Gospels (Karmir Avetaran) and the Russet Gospels (Shek Avetaran).

    Photo by Konrad Siekierski

    Gilded Gospels chapel

    A new chapel dedicated to the Gilded Gospels in the Shirak region of Armenia. Built by the guardians of the home saint, it replaced an old room, in which the book was traditionally kept. Many similar but usually less elaborate shrines have been erected in Armenia in the late-Soviet and post-Soviet periods. This development coincided with an end of religious persecutions under the communist regime.

    Such chapels have often been built at the request of home saints, which they expressed to their guardians in dreams and visions. However, during the last three decades, many precious Gospel Books have been stolen for a black market of art. Their theft has been facilitated by popular beliefs that the home saint would not allow such a sacrilege and would punish those who try to commit it.

    Photo by Konrad Siekierski

    A  home saint and its guardian

    A home saint and its guardian in the Kotayk region of Armenia. A Gospel Book is stored in a box covered by a cloth with an image of Christ. Pictures and other items on the wall are votive offerings brought by pilgrims.

    In this shrine, as in most other similar places, a visitor will find Catholic images, Orthodox icons, and sometimes even Protestant Bibles—all gathered in ecumenical unison and arranged according to the taste of guardians or the instructions of home saints, expressed to guardians in visions and dreams.

    Photo by Konrad Siekierski

    A  procession with the Powerful Gospels

    A procession with the Powerful Gospels (Zoravor Avetaran) to the Holy Mother of God (Surb Astvatsatsin) church in Yerevan. In Armenian, zoravor means “powerful”—a name that indicates the supernatural abilities of the book. The church of the Holy Mother of God is also popularly known as Zoravor; it received its name from the book, which was kept there from the early eighteenth to the early twentieth century.

    In Soviet times, the manuscript became a part of Matenadaran’s collection. Since 2013, the book returns for one day a year to its previous location, where it temporarily resumes its religious life. Currently, there are five Gospel Books under the custody of the Mesrop Mashtots Institute of Ancient Manuscripts that are released on an annual basis for religious feasts of the Armenian Apostolic Church.

    Photo by Konrad Siekierski

    Blessing of the Four Corners of the World

    The Blessing of the Four Corners of the World with the Powerful Gospels during the commemoration day of Movses Tatevatsi in the Holy Mother of God church in Yerevan.

    Blessed and guarded and kept under the divine care be the West side of this land, the earthly kingdoms and all the Christian peoples, by the sign of the Holy Cross and by the Holy Gospel, and by the grace of this day, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, now and forever and unto the ages of ages. Amen.

    Photo by Konrad Siekierski

    Feast dedicated to the Russet Gospels

    The feast dedicated to the Russet Gospels. This early-sixteenth-century manuscript has stayed for the last 200 years in a village in the Gegharkunik region of Armenia. A few years ago, the book was solemnly relocated from an old house of its guardians to a new chapel. Since then, the relatives of the guardians from different parts of Armenia and abroad, clergymen, pilgrims, and local believers meet on the anniversary day for liturgy and a festive dinner.

    Photo by Konrad Siekierski

    Feast of St. George

    The feast of St. George in the church dedicated to this saint in Yerevan. On this occasion, the Gilded Gospels—a home saint guarded by one of the parishioners—joins the relics of St. George, which are brought to the feast from a treasury in Etchmiadzin, the headquarters of the Armenian Apostolic Church. After liturgy, a crowd of believers honor the two sacred objects.

    Photo by Konrad Siekierski

    Konrad Siekierski is a PhD candidate in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at King’s College London. In February and March 2020, he was a visiting fellow at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. His research on modern Armenian pilgrimage culture has been supported by scholarships from the London Arts and Humanities Partnership and the Calouste Gulbenian Foundation. Konrad’s fellowship at the Smithsonian was also sponsored by the London Arts and Humanities Partnership.

    This article uses a simplified romanization of Armenian script, which avoids diacritics but does not follow academic standards.

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