600-year old bible digitised without leaving its medieval home

The Malmesbury Bible on Display

Our expert cultural heritage photographer digitised the precious medieval bible in situ at Malmesbury Abbey.

 


"Onsite photography at our convenience produced the most beautiful images."

 

The problem

In its heyday Malmesbury Abbey had one of the most important medieval libraries in Europe. The four volume Malmesbury Bible, is on permanent display in the Abbey.

Preserved in glass cases in one of the Church's naves, the bible is admired by the Abbey’s 65,000 annual visitors. Digitising the bible would mean extending access to this rich historical document beyond the Wiltshire Abbey’s four walls.

Despite being almost six centuries old, the bible is in excellent condition: all the sheets are intact and in their place, the ink has not faded, the colours are still vibrant and the gold leaf is still firmly attached to the parchment. Nevertheless, given the fragile nature of these ancient manuscripts, the Abbey did not wish to risk moving the bible off-site, even for digitisation purposes.

Digitising the Malmesbury Bible

The solution

Bringing years of experience gained at the Vatican, Eugenio Falcioni, one of our cultural heritage photographers, was despatched to the Abbey to digitise the fragile medieval bible in situ. Utilising our location photography service, Malmesbury Abbey benefited from Eugenio’s expertise and our state-of-the-art kit without the inherent risks of transporting a fragile object.

Like the medieval monks before him, over the course of a fortnight, Eugenio meticulously shot and processed every page in his pop-up photographic studio within the Abbey walls. Handling the fragile originals was paramount. Eugenio carefully positioned the manuscripts on a special cradle which restricted the page opening to less than 90 degrees thereby avoiding damage to the binding.

In addition, the correct light exposure and a faithful chromatic reproduction were crucial to quality reproductions. All our photographers are fully-trained and bring with them our specialist kit. For this project a Phase One medium-format camera and a Schneider 55mm lens were used.

The outcome

A digital copy cannot replace the original, but we were committed to reproducing the photographed manuscript as accurately as possible. After imaging, every single page was carefully checked for the correct focus, page orientation and light exposure.

Every individual image is approximately 200mb and each of the four volumes of the digitised Malmesbury Bible is almost 80gb. The images succeed in rendering even the smallest details of the manuscript with extreme accuracy. Gold and colours are faithfully reproduced and thanks to strong enlargements, it is possible to observe details of the decorations that escape the naked eye and would be visible only with a magnifying glass.

“We were delighted with the British Library service offering onsite photography at our convenience: it was efficient and enjoyable, and produced the most beautiful images." John Sunderland, Friends of Malmesbury Abbey

Thanks to location photography we have given a new life to the Malmesbury Bible without damaging these precious medieval manuscripts.

 

Key points

  • Malmesbury Abbey had one of the most important medieval libraries in Europe.
  • The four volume Malmesbury Bible, is on permanent display and is admired by the Abbey’s 65,000 annual visitors.
  • The Friends of Malmesbury Abbey commissioned the British Library to digitise the bible in order to offer worldwide access to this rich historical document.
  • Our cultural heritage photographer meticulously shot and processed every page in his pop-up photographic studio within the Abbey walls.
  • By utilising our location photography service, the Abbey benefited from our photographer’s expertise and state-of-the-art kit without the inherent risks of transporting such a fragile object.