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Sherborne Missal

This early 15th-century manuscript is probably the largest and most lavishly decorated English medieval service book to survive from the Middle Ages. Such books were mostly destroyed or defaced during the Reformation in the 16th century, or else discarded as useless in subsequent centuries, but this one has somehow survived 500 years in wonderfully fresh condition.

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Sherborne Missal

The Sherborne Missal: Easter Sunday
British Library Add. MS 74236, p. 216
Copyright © The British Library Board

What is a missal?

A missal is a book containing the text – and sometimes, as in this case, the music – needed to celebrate Mass. It includes texts that are used in the same form throughout the year, and others that change from day to day (such as different saints' feast days), or from season to season (such as Advent or Lent) during the Church year. Every priest needed a missal in order to perform the Mass, but few possessed one as magnificent as this.

Why is it called the 'Sherborne' Missal?

The contents of the manuscript show that it was made for (but not necessarily at) St Mary's Abbey at Sherborne in Dorset (South-West England). From about the middle of the 13th century, most churches in southern England followed roughly the same set of liturgical practices (known as the 'Use of Sarum'), but the 'West Country' had some exceptions: Herefordshire had the 'Use of Hereford', and there were other variations especially in the area of Glastonbury and Wells; this manuscript demonstrates that Sherborne followed practices very similar to those of Wells.

What is so special about the Sherborne Missal?

The standard modern textbook on 15th-century English illuminated manuscripts includes this summary of its importance, starting with an arrestingly blunt statement:

"The Sherborne Missal is the unrivalled masterpiece of English Book production in the 15th century. No other native manuscript approaches this book in conception and realisation. It is innovative, at times recklessly daring in its design and placement of pictorial subjects. It encompasses more unique pictorial themes, more unusual methods of integrating subjects, and more decorative modes than occur anywhere else in England."

One particular feature of the manuscript is worthy of mention: a series of 48 highly naturalistic depictions of birds, most of them identified by name in Middle English (rather than Latin). Some of the Middle English names are easily understandable and familiar to modern readers: 'Ganett', 'More hen', 'Stork', 'Cormerant' and so on, while others are much harder to identify: 'Waysteter' (wagtail), 'Wodewale' (woodpecker), and 'Roddoke' (robin), among others.

Who made the manuscript?

Most medieval art is anonymous, but this Missal is very unusual because it contains numerous 'portraits' of the patron, main scribe, and main artist; and inscriptions naming the scribe and artist. The patron was apparently the abbot of Sherborne, Robert Bruyning, whose portrait occurs dozens of times in the manuscript. On eight occasions he is shown with his religious superior, the bishop of Salisbury, Richard Mitford.

John Whas and John Siferwas, pictured in their own manuscript

The name of the main scribe who wrote the script and musical notation is given in a colophon (a note that may be at the end of a manuscript, recording something about the who? when? where? why? of the book's production). Translated from Latin, it reads, "John Whas, the monk, laboured on the writing of this book, and his body was much debilitated by early rising". John Whas is known to have been a monk at Sherborne Abbey; he is depicted seven times. The chief illuminator was John Siferwas, assisted by a team of at least four other artists. He provides six portraits of himself in the habit of a Dominican friar. He also illuminated the 'Lovell Lectionary', another prestigious manuscript commissioned by John, Lord Lovell for Salisbury Cathedral.

When was the manuscript made?

Among the 70 or so examples of heraldic arms painted in the Missal are clues to the dates between which the manuscript must have been written and illuminated, a process that may have taken several years. Most of the work must presumably have been during Robert Bruyning's abbacy, which lasted from 1385 until his death in 1415. Narrower dates can be established by the arms and many portraits of Richard Mitford, who was bishop of Salisbury from 1396 until his death in 1407. These dates can be refined even more: the inclusion of the royal arms of Henry, Prince of Wales – later to become Henry V – suggests the Missal was not completed (and perhaps was not started) before 1399, the year of his father's coronation, after which he assumed the title of Prince of Wales. So work on the manuscript was certainly taking place after 1399 and before 1407, and the entire manuscript may have been created during this period.

What does this page show ?

The page for Easter Sunday shows Jesus rising from his tomb in the large initial 'R'(esurrexit) at the beginning of the text. Below, an angel displays the Veronica (a cloth with a miraculous image of Jesus' face) in the initial 'D'(eus).

Around the border, six medallions present antitypes of the Resurrection: scenes from the Old Testament thought to prefigure the Life of Christ. The heads of prophets occupy smaller diamond medallions. God the Father is shown in the middle of the top border, blessing and holding the orb of the world. On the left-hand side, other scenes relevant to the Easter feast are framed by a microarchitectural structure resembling a contemporary metalwork reliquary.

Christ sits in majesty at the centre, blessing and displaying the wound in his side. Above him, a smaller niche displays his appearance to Mary Magdalene after the Resurrection (Noli me tangere).

The niche below him houses the kneeling Bishop Mitford of Salisbury and Abbot Bruynyng of St. Mary's (abbot from 1385-1415). The two men, who are depicted throughout the manuscript, are identified on scrolls and flanked by saints Peter and Paul.

Below them appear two artists who helped to create the Sherbourne Missal: the scribe Johannes Whas and the painter Johannes Syfrewas are each identified on scrolls.

At the bottom of the page are depicted grotesque jousting matches. Angels and some of the missal's famous birds appear along the border.

How can I see more of this book?

We have created a digital version using our award-winning Turning the Pages™.