This manuscript, which was made for the personal use of Æthelwold, bishop of Winchester from 963 to 984, one of the leaders of the late 10th-century monastic revival in England, is an outstanding masterpiece of Anglo-Saxon book painting.
The Benedictional of St Æthelwold contains special prayers for use by the bishop when pronouncing a blessing over his congregation at mass. The text is written in Latin.
An inscription early in the book describes how the manuscript came to be made:
A bishop, the great Æthelwold, whom the Lord had made patron of Winchester, ordered a certain monk subject to him to write the present book ... He commanded also to be made in this book many frames well adorned and filled with various figures decorated with many beautiful colours and with gold ... Let all who look upon this book pray always that after the term of the flesh I may abide in heaven – Godeman the scribe, as a suppliant, earnestly asks this.
Æthelwold I was Bishop of Winchester from 29 November 963 until his death on 1 August 984, so the manuscript was produced between those dates. Its references to the miracles of St Swithun probably date it post-971, the year that accounts of those miracles became available in translation.
Godeman, the scribe, was a monk from Winchester who was apparently Æthelwold's chaplain.
Each of the principal festivals of the church year and a number of the most important saints, including Winchester's special patron, St Swithun, are represented among its 28 surviving miniatures.
Swithun, an early Bishop of Winchester who died in 862, is known today in English folklore: that the weather on St Swithun's Day, 15 July, determines the weather for the next 40 days. As well as Swithun, special prominence is given in the book to another English saint, Æthelthryth of Ely.
Æthelwold was a major patron of the arts and is reputed himself to have been a skilled worker in precious metals.
The Benedictional is probably the finest example of the 'Winchester School': a painting style of English illuminated manuscripts produced during the late tenth and early 11th centuries, primarily at Winchester, but also at other monasteries in southern England such as Canterbury.
It is characterised by bold, incisive lines, and lavish ornamentation. Heavy borders decorated with acanthus designs feature on many pages, such as the one illustrated here. Eventually such page upholstery became regarded as over-sumptuous and out of fashion, and a lighter, sketchier style of illustration influenced by Continental work came in.
One of the miniatures displayed here show Christ's entry into Jerusalem. Christ is astride a donkey, followed by a group of people with golden palm branches. Two youths at the city gate spread mantles under the donkey's feet, and above them other figures lean out from the city walls or are up a tree throwing flowers.
The scene is surrounded by frame of Winchester-style acanthus, with round bosses at each corner. Models for both illustrations and decoration were provided by earlier manuscripts and by ivory carvings from the Carolingian Empire.
View this manuscript in detail here.