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The sacred rolls are prayers and protecting formulas inscribed on parchment paper about ten centimetres wide. However, they unfurl to a length equal to that of the person wearing them. Their use was common in several traditions, but notably among Jews, Maronites, and Ethiopians, who sanctify their respective Hebrew, Syriac, and Ge’ez scriptures.” The sacred scrolls are stored in a small cylindrical leather container and worn around the neck like a pendant.

The Judeo-Christian Traditions

The tradition of wearing them on the body did not allow them to subsist like frescoes, mosaics, and icons. Thus, most of the Jewish and Maronite specimens, written in Hebrew and Syriac, respectively, have disappeared. There are still extensive models inscribed in Ge’ez, since Ethiopia kept on producing them throughout the 20th century, turning the sacred scrolls into a distinctly Ethiopian art form. The majority of books and articles falsely label them as magical scrolls and have classified them as part of African culture.

The three Ethiopian scrolls of the Bar-Julius Library, Lebanon.

However, both in form and in content, Ethiopian scrolls are similar to those of Judeo-Christian traditions, and consistent with other Christian models including Armenian, Assyrian, or Maronite. There’s no magic in the text either, as it consists of Christian prayers, biblical verses, and, above all, invocations of the Words incarnate, crucified, and resurrected. Some distinctly Ethiopian customs involve elements of wizardry, such as the practice of drinking or smearing the body with ox blood, whose skin was used to make parchment paper. However, this usage is apocryphal and remains unrelated to the content of the Christian text and its illustrations.

The script, devoid of any embellishments, is pure and distinct from the decoration and illustrations. This quality is derived from its sacred value, inherited from Judaism and associated with the writings in Syriac and Ethiopian traditions. This notion confers upon the script an acheiropoiete dimension (not made by human hands) that doesn’t tolerate any superfluity.

Super, median and infer registers of the Bar-Jul scroll. Eth.2. Total length: 201cm, parchment, 19th century.

The Maronite Scroll

The Maronite protective scroll was created by Patriarch Paul I Massaad (1854-1890). Some researchers have mistakenly referred to it as an amulet, concealing its true nature. In fact, to avoid any association with wizardry, the Maronite patriarch formulated the text around the theme of the Christic cycle, written in garshouneh.

Massaad started the script by using the verse from Saint John (1:1): “In the beginning was the Logos.” In the following lines, he mentioned the incarnation in John (1:14): “And the Logos became flesh.” Further along, he went on with the story of Salvation by emphasizing the power of the victorious cross: “Behold the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. Flee, troublesome enemies! Behold, he has triumphed.” Further down in the text, the cross is revealed as a sign of life: “From your redeeming Crucifixion, from your life-giving death,” just before he addresses the theme of the Resurrection leading to the Ascension. Here, there is a return to the Father, to the Word (the Logos): “From your glorious Resurrection from the dead, from your honorable Ascension to heaven,” as stated by the text.

The comparison between this scroll and other Syriac models highlights the significance of the Christic narrative as being fundamental and opposed to any kind of wizardry. Drawing on Gollancz’s work regarding a collection of Syriac protective texts, Salamé-Sarkis notes that several texts relate to the Prologue of John. For the Maronite, the Word-Logos is thus at the origin of everything. The exorcist text and the patriarch’s signature are merely intermediaries and witnesses. “Validity emanates solely from the Word,” writes Salamé-Sarkis.

Super, median and infer registers of the Bar-Jul scroll. Eth.3. Total length: 171cm, parchment, 19th century.

Two Ethiopian Scrolls

Furthermore, the Ethiopian scrolls from the Bar-Julius Library (Lebanon) date back to the 19th century. Bar-Jul. Eth. 2 measures 9 × 201 cm, while the size of Bar-Jul. Eth. 3 is 9 × 171 cm. These lengths correspond to the size of the person who used to put them on. Following the Ethiopian prototype, each scroll features three illustrations designated as super (at the top of the scroll), median (in the middle), and infer (at the lower end).

According to the respected iconographic code, the archangel armed with his sword is depicted in the super register, and the eyes that ward off the evil eye are placed in the median register. As for the cross of Christ, it always appears in the infer register. In the case of the Bar-Jul. Eth. 2 scroll, the infer drawing shows a cross formed by intersecting faces, while in Bar-Jul. Eth. 3, the cross is clearly identifiable and carried in procession according to the local custom.

The median register also offers two variations. In Bar-Jul. Eth. 2, we can spot a frieze consisting of a series of eyes, while Bar-Jul. Eth. 3 depicts the eyes within a star-shaped cross.

Two Syriac grammars. On the left, the Syr.16 manuscript of Manchester attributed to Gregory Bar Hebraeus (+1286).  (John Rylands Library). On the right, the Beirut manuscript F. Syr.1, dated 1775. Saint Joseph University.

A Deep Fascination for the Eye

In its quest for transcendence, the art of the Christian icon is inherently story-driven and timeless. The hieratic nature of the character compels the viewer to engage in its infinite gaze. As such, the vanishing perspective point does not lie within the painting but rather within the spectator, who becomes an integral part of the scene and the event. Ethiopian art further emphasizes this notion by focusing on the power of the gaze.

The illustrations of the protective scroll revolve around the expressive power of the angelic eye that wards off the evil eye. According to Jules Leroy, the Ethiopian artist “has no regard for the true reality of the anatomy and doesn’t shy away from… mutilating nature and bending it to his whims.” He paints with bold and unforgettable expressiveness, and he emphasizes, reinforces, and magnifies the gaze to a fascinating degree. On the other hand, Jacques Mercier attempts to define this fascination as the abolition of perspective and its substitution by an effect of opposition between the movable and the static. “The image is centered,” as he says. “The circles frame the field of vision, and in contrast, the gaze remains fixed on the core patterns of the eyes. The drawing creates the impression of movement while being still. This movement in stillness is none other than fascination.”

Sometimes, Ethiopian stylization can be found in certain manuscripts such as the Syriac grammar of Manchester (Syr. 16) and that of Beirut (F. Syr.1). Following the same process of schematization, the characters are reduced to simple stylized faces dominated by the circles of the eyes. Here and there, the drawing is expressionist, and the lines don’t adhere to reality but to rhythmic laws. According to Jules Leroy, their iconographic style “raises the question of the existence among Syriac speaking Christians of the Syriac language of an imagery with magical characteristics.”