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Unveiling Library Treasures: Armenian Gospels at Andover-Harvard

April 15, 2014—On a shelf in the Andover-Harvard Theological Library sits a book of the gospels in Armenian, hand-written by a scribe named Megerdich in AD 1504. Small—just 17 by 12.8 centimeters—and bound in worn leather, its pages feature stunning color drawings and meticulous work. The text was featured in two January term courses in 2010 and 2011, part of a program designed to expose students to the breadth of the Harvard Library’s collections. 


Armenian Gospel

The manuscript’s cover was once adorned with a Maltese cross and closed by a buckle; both were probably removed to sell the metal as scrap. The leather binding is intricately tooled in a curvy motif that is now almost invisible due to wear. The space once occupied by the cross provides a glimpse of the cover’s original design.

Flyleaf from Armenian Book

Waste not, want not—an older Georgian manuscript was cut down and used as the fly leaf. The donor’s nameplate is inscribed “Presented by Miss Grace A. Ely, Williamsport, N.Y. 1922”. The volume came to Harvard when the Andover and Harvard Theological Libraries merged. It was a gift in the 1920s to the Andover collection from a New Yorker, who was likely given the volume as a gift. It was probably purchased in Turkey.

The four title pages of each gospel are of intricate design, facing a full-page miniature of the Evangelist (in this case, Matthew). The blocky design and bright colors are typical of the time.

The text was hand-lettered in black ink on paper in miniscule text by a single scribe. The capital letters of each verse are larger, red designs, sometimes a flower or a bird.

Portrait of Mark. Armenia was home to one of the first Christian communities in the world. Stylistically, the text and illustrations were standard; the preface from the scribe gives extensive background on the political environment of the time.  

Armenian Luke

Portrait of Luke. The scribe, Megerdich, wrote, “There was great sorrow and weeping, and the people did not know what to do. They envied those who were dead. And they prayed to the mountains to come cover them. There was great trouble among the Christians, and they hoped that the love of God would sustain them…. And because of this suffering I undertook to write this gospel. And the tears would not allow me to write this more clearly.”

Armenian Matthew

Portrait of Matthew. Renata Kalnins, a research librarian at Andover-Harvard, writes, “I find the scribe’s text very touching—it provides a vivid, direct connection to the individuals, the place and the times connected to this manuscript in the 16th century.”