The Winchester Bible is the largest and finest of all surviving 12th-century English bibles. A single scribe wrote out its text in Latin, while artists worked its exquisitely illuminated capital letters. Their glowing colours, including gold and lapis lazuli, are as intense today as 800 years ago.
What’s special about this Bible?
During the 12th century several magnificently large Bibles were produced in England. This huge Bible, with its beautiful hand- written script and sumptuous decorated initials, is undoubtedly the finest.
A remarkable survival, it was commissioned in 1160, probably by Henry of Blois, grandson of William the Conqueror and Bishop of Winchester for over 40 years.
It was laboriously produced in the great priory linked to the Cathedral, where sacred texts were copied out for use in daily worship. The manuscript remains unfinished – giving us invaluable insights into the complex processes needed to create it.
You can still see this unique document in the Cathedral Library.
How was it written out?
The text, in the Latin of St Jerome, was handwritten on 468 sheets (folios) of calf-skin parchment, each measuring 23 by 15.75 inches (583 x 396 mm). These sheets were folded down the centre, making 936 pages in all.
It’s estimated that the hides of some 250 calves were needed. This kind of parchment was expensive – so to save space, the writer often shortened words, and each new book of the Bible starts on the same page as the last.
It was copied by a single scribe, probably using a goose feather quill – the best available – and then checked. You can still see the corrections made by a second monk in the margins. Each page was ruled in advance, to ensure the layout remained the same.
As he wrote, the scribe held a pen knife in his left hand to press down the springy parchment. He also used it to sharpen his quill, and scrape out any mistakes.
When the text had been written, but before the main art work begun, coloured initial letters were added at the beginning and end of each chapter. Red, green and blue ink was used.
How were the illuminations created?
Six freelance artists, probably travelling professionals, painted the glorious initial letters you see at the start of each book of the Bible, each telling a different story. A total of 48 letters were completed.
Expensive pigments were used, including sumptuous gold leaf or paint to make the pictures sparkle. The blue lapis lazuli would have been even more expensive – it came from Afghanistan.
Not all the illuminations were finished. Some are rough outlines, or just inked in. Others have been gilded, but not painted.
What’s happened to it since then?
The whole Bible was originally bound in two volumes, and would have been too heavy to carry around. It has been re-bound several times and now consists of four volumes, with oak boards and leather backs.
Over the years, the manuscript has suffered at the hands of thieves and collectors. Some nine illuminated initials and at least one full-page illustration have been removed entirely.
This great work of art is now a national treasure, both for its beauty and what it reveals about its creation.
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