Winchester Bible Back On Show

May 23, 2019

After an absence of five years, all four volumes of the magnificent Winchester Bible have returned to Winchester Cathedral as part of Kings and Scribes: The Birth of a Nation, a spectacular new National Lottery Funded exhibition which opened to the public on 21 May.

Now newly conserved and rebound, the 12th century Winchester Bible is commonly considered to be one of the most important medieval manuscripts in existence. It is the finest and largest surviving 12th-century English bible, renowned for its sheer size, rarity and astonishing artistry.

Winchester Cathedral commissioned the project to conserve the Winchester Bible in 2014. Although the manuscript was in generally good condition, there were areas of loose painting and gilding visible to the naked eye; the initials were vulnerable to further damage. Strips of parchments had been added to the spine-folds of the manuscript when the Bible was last rebound in 1948 and these covered annotations and corrections hidden in the spine margins.

Led by the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries, the conservation project would see each of the four volumes of the Bible disbound, conserved, digitized and then rebound. Bodleian conservators have conducted the majority of the conservation work on the Bible’s four volumes, although the project was initially begun at the Oxford Conservation Consortium by the late Dr Christopher Clarkson, a pre-eminent, independent book conservator, who passed away in 2017 after conserving volume I and parts of volume II of the Winchester Bible.

The conservation work has involved the consolidation of vulnerable painting and gilding to the illuminations, the removal of earlier parchment repairs and adhesive to the spine folds which restricted the opening of the manuscript, and repairing damage to the leaves with much smaller shaped parchment repairs. Finally each of the four volumes has been rebound.

The Winchester Bible is a very large and heavy manuscript, being the largest of the giant English 12th-century lectern Bibles. The parchment, comprising 250 calfskins alone, weighs some 32 kgs and rebinding such a large manuscript has been challenging. The binding has relied on the best features of English 12th-century Romanesque bindings, relearning and using some techniques that haven’t been carried out for 800 years. Unusually for book conservation the large size has meant that the work was often a job for two or more conservators. However, the materials used for the binding (linen, parchment, goatskin leather, oak boards) would have been familiar to the Bible’s scribe.

Andrew Honey, Book Conservator at the Bodleian Libraries, says: “Working on this exceptional manuscript has been both incredibly challenging and a wonderful conservation masterclass. The manuscript’s great importance and its complex conservation needs have placed a huge burden of responsibility of me, but this very complexity and the difficulties faced by rebinding a parchment manuscript of this size and weight have made it such a rewarding process. It is rare to spend such a long time with a single manuscript, but this luxury has given me a deep understanding of the efforts taken by parchment makers, scribes, artists and bookbinder who first produced it, and a recognition of the problems they had to overcome – as well as an appreciation to those who have cared for it for over 800 years.” 

As part of the conservation project each leaf of the manuscript has also been fully digitized. This was carried out after the leaves had been conserved but before they were rebound and for the first time every correction and annotation, as well as instructions to the artists have been recorded. Digitized pages from the Winchester Bible form part of an interactive display in Kings and Scribes: The Birth of a Nation, giving visitors the opportunity to learn more about this exquisite manuscript.

Canon Roland Riem, Vice-Dean at Winchester Cathedral, says: ‘It seems an age since visitors were able to see the four volumes of the Winchester Bible together. To be able to do so in an exquisitely simple setting, with rich interpretation nearby and in a space roughly contemporary to the date of its production, is a real joy.’

Kings and Scribes: The Birth of a Nation will enhance the experience of all visitors to Winchester Cathedral, enriching their understanding of this ancient building, its monastic community and its intrinsic connection with the history of the English nation. Visit the Cathedral website to find out more: www.winchester-cathedral.org.uk