March 30, 2015, by Kathryn Steenson
Happy Easter from Manuscripts and Special Collections
As this weekend is Easter, it seems appropriate to share some Easter-related images from one of our treasures: the 15th century Wollaton Antiphonal belonging to St Leonard’s parish church.
An Antiphonal is a book of liturgical music. It contains the words and music to the sung portions of the Divine Office, and had to be large enough to be seen by all the members of a choir. It’s not easy to gauge the size from these photos, but the volume here is almost 2 feet (60cm) in length, is made of over 400 vellum sheets, and requires two people to lift it.
It was used, as an undated note in the cover declares, “in the time of Popery”, i.e. before the Reformation. To be more precise, it was created in around 1430 for Sir Thomas Chaworth and his second wife Isabella de Aylesbury, an enormous and lavish volume befitting Sir Thomas’s status as the wealthiest man in Nottinghamshire. It was probably for use in their private chapel at Wiverton Manor, Nottinghamshire, but was put up for sale in 1460, shortly after the deaths in quick succession of first Isabella, then Sir Thomas.
Before the Reformation, every medieval church, chapel and religious house would have had an antiphonal (not all as beautiful as this one!) but in the zeal to remove iconoclasm, many Catholic religious books were destroyed. Only a handful of antiphonals survive, and the Wollaton Antiphonal is one of only two illustrated with miniatures. The volume contains 23 historiated initials, which are letters in which pictures of scenes or figures have been drawn to illustrate key religious events, including this one of the Crucifixion within the letter ‘G’.
It shows Jesus on the cross, and the illustrator(s) did not shy away from depicting the suffering. Jesus is bleeding heavily from his wounds, with two shades of red ink used to convey the drops of blood. Behind him, God is seated wearing flowing robes, right hand raised in benediction.
Most medieval works were hand-written, as printing technology only came into use in England at the end of the fifteenth century. The text was written out first, leaving space for the illustrations to be drawn onto the parchment, after which the gold leaf and colour were applied, which are still vibrant after 500 years. Creating the Antiphonal probably involved several scribes and illustrators, and the attention to detail is stunning, from the veins on the leaves to the swirling gold decoration surrounding God. Not every page is as lavishly decorated as this, because the time-consuming illustrations were reserved for the beginning of a new section relating to important events in the Bible, such as Jesus’s crucifixion. Their inclusion served as a reminder of the high status of the volume (and, by extension, its owner). Many pages have borders of vines, dragons, and arms from Thomas and Isabella’s families, as seen on the image above, but again these weren’t included on every page. More common are the decorated letters such as this one:
This volume is one of a small but significant number of manuscripts from the Medieval period (pre-1600) that we hold. Many are religious texts, but there are also works of prose and poetry. Unlike most of our books and manuscripts, the Antiphonal is not available to consult in the Reading Room because it is vulnerable to damage. Digital images are available and 75 pages can be viewed from our website.
Manuscripts and Special Collections will be closed from Good Friday, 3rd April and will re-open on Wednesday 8th April.