Spotlight On … the Vision of Mary.

Spotlight On … the Vision of Mary.

Written by Victoria Green.

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It was a few months ago now when our curator Philip Warner gave an interview to BBC Radio Northampton’s Heather Wilson and a local imam about some of our most important religious artefacts. One of the items discussed was a book from Ethiopia described as the ‘Vision of Mary’ and complete with a leather carrycase. As reading Amharic isn’t one of my talents, I was unable to confirm the contents of the book.

What fascinated me most were the hand-drawings on the blank pages, images of a face and what seemed to be doodles. You can even see the tiny holes and impressions of where the page was scored to provide straight lines to write upon. This level of personalisation made me realise the significance of this book, not only culturally but individually too.

Originally there was the suggestion that the book may have links to voodoo and could have been used in ‘illicit practices’. I don’t know whether this was because of the potential relationship with Arabic and Coptic traditions, or because of the doodles and edits within the text. Admittedly, this is why I first picked up the book as my next research project. I was drawn in by the possibility of a morbid artefact but, in reality, it seems to be the real deal. Not a glamorised dark magic spell-book, but a personal manuscript used by a monk for worship and prayer.

The accession record describes it as a ‘Manuscript of the ‘Vision of Mary’ written in Amharic, in black and red, bound with wooden boards in its satchel of gazelle skin. Ethiopian, possibly 18th Century.’

From my own precursory research, I found that the Vision of Mary is generally used as a teaching text. Typically, in the Vision of Mary, the Virgin visits ‘the abode of the righteous and the place of punishment of the wicked’, and here the Lord explains to her why some souls suffer one kind of punishment and some another. The text itself has interesting links to Arabic and Coptic legends, with some of the narrative being absorbed into Ethiopic from these traditions. The description of Hell, for example, usually mimics Ancient Egyptian works.

The mystery of this little book had peaked my interest enough for me to reach out to an expert at SOAS, University of London to learn more. With this help, I discovered that the book was written in a mixture of Amharic (the national language of Ethiopia) and Ge’ez (the classical lingua franca). The handwriting and size of the book itself is fairly standard, and hints to personal usage by a member of the laity. Evidence from the Hon. R. H. Curzon’s ‘Visits to the monasteries of the Levant’ (1849) supports this. He notes that monks from an Abyssinian monastery carried their manuscripts in a ‘cartridge box of thick brown leather’ suspended from a shoulder strap.

The text also begins in Ge’ez, reading ‘Let us begin, with the help of God, to write the vision of our Lady Mary, for ever and ever Amen’. This use of Ge’ez is now mainly confined to scholar monks and contemporary studies by devout laity; the classical language of Ethiopia is very much tied to the church.

According to my SOAS source, what we are really looking at here is a ‘pseudepigraph’; a piece written by an author other than the person claimed to have authored it in the text itself. We will probably never know the true story behind this copy of the ‘Vision of Mary’ but it is certainly a common thing to see sections of the Bible alongside other texts produced in books, and kept for personal use.

Thus ends the mystery of the Vision of Mary for now! The museum currently has friends at Boston University and beyond that are planning to translate the text in its entirety. Perhaps then the full history of our little mystery book will be revealed.

This book is just one example of the countless treasures in the National Leather Collection! To learn more about the collection, visit our homepage. All support is greatly appreciated, so please visit our support page to find out how you can get involved.

We are trying to raise £5,000 on JustGiving to open our museum to the public. To read more about our fundraising campaign, please visit our page here.