This week’s Book of the Week is the stunning and historic Winchester Bible, for the simple reason that a couple of weeks back we motored down to Winchester to visit the Cathedral, to pay homage at Jane Austen’s burial place and, of course, to encounter the Winchester Bible.
The Winchester Bible
The Winchester Bible is a Romanesque illuminated manuscript with handwritten scripts, stunning illuminations and elaborately, intriguingly decorated initials produced between 1160 and 1175. It has been described as ‘undoubtedly the finest Bible of its time’. That it is still in the place of worship for which is was commissioned some 850 years ago makes it unique among medieval Bibles.
Henry De Blois and the Winchester Bible
The Winchester Bible, in all likelihood was commissioned by the wealthy aristocrat and brother of King Stephen, Henry De Blois. De Blois, Abbot of Glastonbury and Bishop of Winchester from 1129 until his death in 1171 was a powerful politician, a clergyman aspirations to become Archbishop of Canterbury and a renown bibliophile. He wrote and sponsored several books, including William Malmesbury’s On the Antiquity of the Glastonbury Church and the Winchester Psalter which is now preserved in the British Library.
Henry de Blois supported the losing side in the conflict between his brother, King Stephen and the empress Matilda and was forced into exile in 1153. He was pardoned by Stephen’s successor, Henry II and returned to England, retaining his positions at both Glastonbury and Winchester. Upon his return, he set about attempting to restore the Winchester see to its former prestige. Commissioning his ‘Great Bible’ was part of that effort. It was intended to engender awe and wonder and to outstrip the glorious manuscripts he had seen in other religious houses and on his travels during his exile. Its dimensions were the largest that contemporary parchment production would allow, producing leaves some three feet tall and allowing a rich rendition of the holy Scriptures and plenty of space for magnificent illuminations and dazzlingly beautiful, decorated initials. The sheer scale of Henry’s ambition is remarkable: that work on the Bible stopped around the time he died shows how utterly dependent its production was on his drive and his money. The guide book says “it represents a lavish investment by a major benefactor and reflects the significance of the Scriptures for monastic life. Enormous care went into the accuracy of the beautifully rendered calligraphy of the text and the delicate perfection of the illustrations. It encapsulates the beauty of holiness”.(1) A Bible on this scale would have cost much the same as building a small castle. It is the largest surviving medieval English Bible.
The Winchester Bible and the Word of God
In the 12th century many Christians believed that the Bible scriptures were not only holy texts but also a literal description of the world around them which prescribed the way in which they were to live within the rule and love of God. The 70 odd monks at what was then Winchester’s Priory of St Swithun would have listened to the Bible being read out during their prayers and also in the refectory at meal times, so that they could better imbibe the word of God during their leisure. For all its elaborate magnificence, Henry’s Great Bible may have been commissioned with this humble purpose in mind.
Making the Winchester Bible
It is made up of 468 leaves of calf-skin parchment, each fold of the book requiring an entire skin. It is estimated that it took the skin of 250 calves to produce. The first mention of the Winchester Bible in records from 1622 describe as being in two volumes but it has been rebound at least twice since then: once in 1840 when it was set into three volumes, and more recently in 1948 when it was set into four individual volumes each bound in gold-tooled cream leather.(2)
Unusually for a Bible of this time, it appears that the calligraphy of the text, which includes both the Old and New Testaments, is the work of a single scribe (barring a few small additions and corrections). It has been estimated that it would take one scribe some four years to complete this. Experts suspect that it is the work of a young hand and there is evidence of mistakes and corrections throughout.
In contrast the illuminations and decorations seem to be the work of at least six different artists who used inks and colouring from as far afield as Afghanistan to achieve their rich, vibrant illustrations. While the text of the scripture is complete, much of the decorative work was never finished and the illuminations appear at varying points of completion. Some are just rough outlines and there are also some unpainted gilded images and figures complete in all but the granular detail. Forty-eight of the historiated initials (overlarge illustrated letters at the beginning of a piece of text which depict an identifiable figure or scene) that introduce each book are complete.
Thieves and Collectors
Over the years, the Winchester Bible, like many other medieval illuminated manuscripts, has suffered at the hands of thieves and collectors. Some nine historiated initials and at least one full-page illustration have been removed entirely. Just one of these, the initial of Obadiah, has been recovered and re-inserted.
The Morgan Leaf of the Winchester Bible
One missing leaf, showing scenes from the lives of Samuel on the recto and of King David on the verso, is now in the Morgan Library in New York and known as the Morgan Leaf. It is possible that the leaf was removed from the Bible when it was rebound in the early 19th century. Sydney Cockerell, at one time secretary to the famous English designer and lover of medieval arts William Morris, records that a dealer from Florence, Leo Olschki, once offered the leaf to Morris for £100. Morris couldn’t afford it. The leaf was subsequently offered to John Pierpoint Morgan (1837-1913) a financier and book collector, who paid 30,000 francs for it in 1912. After his death his collection became the core of the Morgan Library and Museum in Manhattan. Ironically, even if Morris had purchased the leaf, it is likely that it would still have ended up in the Morgan Library: in 1902 Morgan purchased the collection of Richard Bennett, who had himself purchased William Morris’s collection in 1897.
At the time that Morgan purchased the leaf, it’s origin was unclear. The invoice from Olschki made no claim as it where the leaf came from and an early Morgan accession books describes it as probably Italian, from the 12th century. In 1926, the then Keeper of the British Museum, Eric Millar, made a connection between the leaf and two of the Winchester Bible’s leading artists, but did not suggest it had come from the Bible. Modern scholarship however has established beyond reasonable doubt that it once formed part of Henry De Blois’s Great Bible. Although full page miniatures were not originally intended to be included, drawings for four of them were made. Only two were completed – those on the Morgan Leaf.
Visiting the Winchester Bible at Winchester Cathedral
The Winchester Bible is still in the care of the Cathedral for which it was commissioned. The Cathedral is currently undergoing a major reconstruction project which has necessitated the closure of the south transept and the Morley Library, the home of the Winchester Bible. There is a temporary exhibition featuring one volume of the Bible in the north transept. It is open Monday to Saturday, 10.00 am to 4.00 pm.
1. Reims, Roland (2014), The Winchester Bible: The First 850 Years, Pitkin Publishing, 2014, p 1.
2. Donovan, Claire (1993), The Winchester Bible, University of Toronto Press, p. 3