With 347 illuminated pages each measuring approximately 535 x 380mm, the Sherborne Missal is probably the largest and most lavishly decorated English service book to survive from the Middle Ages.
A missal is a book that contains all the texts required for celebrating Mass, the central service of the liturgy. Every medieval church and monastic house needed a missal to perform the Mass each day. Yet the Sherborne Missal is exceptional for its deluxe scale and illumination.
The Sherborne Missal begins with a calendar recording the feast days celebrated throughout the year, followed by the texts that were read and chanted at different masses. As is usual for liturgical books, these are arranged in three sections. The first section is the Temporale, which provides texts for the feasts and holidays that are celebrated on different dates from year to year, such as Easter. Then the prefaces, musical notation and text are provided for the invariable part of the Mass, known as the Ordinary and Canon. The final section is the Sanctorale, which features the readings and prayers for fixed saints’ days throughout the year. Some of the texts in the Sherborne Missal indicate liturgical practices that were local to south-west England.
The Missal was made for the Benedictine abbey of St Mary’s in Sherborne, Dorset. The abbey’s coat of arms features prominently in the illumination.
The book was probably commissioned by Robert Bruyning, the abbot of Sherborne from 1385–1415, whose image appears in the manuscript about a hundred times. He is depicted together with Richard Mitford, who was the bishop of Salisbury from 1396–1407, and who is represented eight times.
The master craftsmen behind the manuscript also feature in the decoration – John Siferwas, the artist, and John Whas, the scribe.
Illuminated in gold and a wide range of colours, the manuscript contains a wealth of images. As well as including numerous references to Sherborne and its abbot, initials and margins throughout the manuscript are illustrated with biblical subjects designed to draw parallels between the liturgical year and the life of Christ. On the pages that relate to the most important festivals, the pictures and ornament expand to almost entirely fill the page.
The climax of the illumination is the magnificent full-page picture of the Crucifixion which precedes the text for the Canon, the part of the Mass in which the Eucharist takes place. Here the solemn figure of the crucified Christ – his face delicately modelled with an expression of resigned sadness – is surrounded by a dense crowd of onlookers. In the foreground, the eye is drawn to the swooning Virgin Mary, patroness of Sherborne Abbey.
One of the most unusual features of the manuscript’s decoration is the inclusion of 44 highly naturalistic depictions of birds in the margins. Most of the birds are identified by their Middle English names such as the easily recognisable ‘ganett’, ‘moorhen’, ‘stork’, and ‘comerant’, as well as some that are harder to identify, for example the ‘wodewale’ (woodpecker) and the ‘roddoke’ (robin).
The Sherborne Missal is available to view in its entirety online via the British Library's Universal Viewer.