Art and Architecture

Manuscript Illumination in England

Winchester Bible: Initial from Genesis When the Normans invaded England they took over a country larger and much more wealthy than their own and, as if to emphasize their dominance, began to construct huge architectural works in stone. By the early years of the 12th century much of the building work, particularly that of the great churches and monasteries, was nearing completion and attention could now be turned to embellishment. This took the form of increased architectural decoration, wall-paintings and book production.

Winchester Bible: initial from 2 KingsThe Benedictine foundations were in the forefront of book production and illumination. Because of the balance of the Rule of St Benedict between prayer, work and study they were in a better position than some of the other orders to devote time to the pursuit of learning. The monasteries of St Albans, Canterbury and Winchester and others produced Psalters, commentaries on the scriptures and, most strikingly, a series of great Bibles, lavishly illustrated with initials and whole-page narrative scenes. The Winchester Bible is the most ambitious of these and was written, probably under the patronage of Henry of Blois (Bishop of Winchester 1129-1171), between about 1160 and 1180.

Winchester Bible: initial from JoshuaWinchester Bible: initial E from EzekielIt is a complete Bible, Old Testament, Apocrypha and New Testament, written, by one scribe (with minor interventions by a second), on 468 leaves of calf-skin parchment and punctuated with 54 complete or partially complete initials by at least six different artists working over a period of about 20 years. The text is complete but the fact that the initials become less and less complete towards the end of the manuscript perhaps indicates that the money provided by the Bible's sponsor was not quite enough to complete this sumptuous work. It remains today in the Library at Winchester Cathedral, the building for which it was created over 800 years ago.

John Hardacre 
Winchester Cathedral


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