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Detail of illuminated art in the Sherborne Missal. Source: Public Domain

Sherborne Missal: 44-Pound Medieval Masterpiece Goes Digital

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The British Library has digitized one of the most remarkable medieval books ever made in England. The Sherborne Missal contains many paintings on a vast array of subjects. Many of the images are masterpieces of English illumination art. Putting the Sherborne Missal into a digital format means that more people can admire this work of art and gain new insights into Medieval life.

This work was produced for St Mary’s, a Benedictine monastery in Sherborne, Dorset, in the south-west of England and it was created by monks sometime between 1399 and 1407. The Sherborne Missal is a book with a set of texts for different mass services throughout the liturgical year. The British Library  states that ‘Some of the texts in the Sherborne Missal indicate liturgical practices that were local to south-west England.’

Portraits of John Whas, the scribe, and John Siferwas, the artist of the Sherborne Missal, on the page for Easter Day: Add MS 74236, p. 216 (detail). (Public Domain)

Portraits of John Whas, the scribe, and John Siferwas, the artist of the Sherborne Missal, on the page for Easter Day: Add MS 74236, p. 216 (detail). ( Public Domain )

The Sherborne Missal is as Heavy as a Five-Year-Old Boy!

The Sherborne Missal consists of 347 pages of vellum made from the hides of animals. The book ‘itself weighs about 44 pounds—about the same as an average five-year-old boy,’ reports Newsweek.  In total, the book has 648 pages and it contains thousands of images. According to Newsweek. ‘The British Library describes the Sherborne Missal as ‘probably the largest and most lavishly decorated English service book to survive from the Middle Ages.’’

Among the topics illustrated in the book are scenes from the lives of local Dorset saints. There are also scenes from the history of the Abbey of St Mary’s. Most of the illuminating work consists of scenes from the Life of Christ and the Bible. The British Library reports that the ‘The climax of the illumination is the magnificent full-page picture of the Crucifixion .’

The full-page picture of the Crucifixion in the Sherborne Missal. (Public Domain)

The full-page picture of the Crucifixion in the Sherborne Missal. ( Public Domain )

The Medieval Illuminated Masterpieces

The work was almost certainly commissioned by Robert Brunyng, the abbot of Sherborne Abbey. His portrait appears in the book almost 100 times. Several times he is shown wearing splendid and ornate clothes on Holy Days and in one image we even see him with his hounds, indicating that he went hunting. Brunyng had a very luxurious lifestyle for a monk , but this was not uncommon in the Late Medieval Church, which had become increasingly worldly. On another occasion he is shown with a local bishop and this picture was painted to illustrate the power and connections of the Abbot.

Portraits of Abbot Brunyng with dogs, p. 492 (left), and wearing a selection of fine vestments, pp. 220, 266, 279 (upper), pp. 262, 264, 51 (lower) (details). (Public Domain)

Portraits of Abbot Brunyng with dogs, p. 492 (left), and wearing a selection of fine vestments, pp. 220, 266, 279 (upper), pp. 262, 264, 51 (lower) (details). ( Public Domain )

A Dominican friar named John Siferwas was the main artist for the work and he drew many realistic and highly naturalistic images. In her Medieval Manuscript Blog , Eleanor Jackson reports that he painted a portrait of himself ‘floating in the lower margin, his habit entwined around the branch of a rose bush which forms the lower border to the page.’ Siferwas was a master of his art and contributed to the production of the celebrated Lovell Lectionar.

A Medieval Scribe had a Hard Life

Another person who was vital in the production of the book was the scribe John Whas, who was probably a Dominican monk who worked in the Abbey’s scriptorium, where books were produced. Whas wrote his name and expressed his feelings about his work as a scribe in several colophons. Colophons were spaces in a manuscript where scribes and authors would reveal details about themselves and the creative process involved in crafting a book.

The work of a scribe was very hard in the Middle Ages. Everything had to be written by hand and with pens were made from reeds. It was a painstaking process. This took a great toll on the monks and others who wrote medieval books . In one colophon, you can see the complaint that ‘John Whas the monk has worked to write this book, and rose early, his body becoming much wasted in the process,’ according Jackson in the Medieval Manuscript Blog .

There are 48 remarkable illustrations of British bird species that appear in the margins of the Sherborne Missal. The Medieval Manuscript Blog explains that they are ‘famous in medieval manuscript illumination’s for their ‘ornithological accuracy.’’ These are very realistic, and they are much admired by bird lovers and ornithologists. Newsweek reports that ‘The bird species are labeled with their Middle English names, including recognizable ones like stork, moorhen, comerant, and more archaic names like 'wodewale.’

Kingfisher (kyngefystere), robin (roddock), skylark (larke), female house sparrow (sparwe hen), starling (stare), spotted woodpecker (wodewale): Add MS 74236, pp. 383, 382, 369, 377, 385, 373 (details). (Public Domain)

Kingfisher ( kyngefystere), robin ( roddock), skylark ( larke), female house sparrow ( sparwe hen ), starling ( stare), spotted woodpecker ( wodewale): Add MS 74236, pp. 383, 382, 369, 377, 385, 373 (details). ( Public Domain )

You Can Read the $21 Million Book Online

The digitized Sherborne Missal is now available at the British Library Universal Viewer . More of the Library’s great collection of manuscripts and books are expected to be digitized in the future.

This book was purchased in 1998 from the Duke of Northumberland and it sold for a staggering $21 million, almost as much as one of the copies of the Magna Carta , one of the most famous of all Medieval texts. Thanks to the digitization anyone can now see this book which was once only accessible to a small group of academics and visitors to the British Library .

Top image: Detail of illuminated art in the Sherborne Missal. Source: Public Domain

By Ed Whelan

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