Elizabeth Parker McLachlan

title.none: Backhouse, The Sherborne Missal (McLachlan)

identifier.other: baj9928.0008.006 00.08.06

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Elizabeth Parker McLachlan , Rutgers University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2000

identifier.citation: Backhouse, Janet. The Sherborne Missal. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999. Pp. 5, 64. $29.95. ISBN: 0-802-04743-2.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 00.08.06

Backhouse, Janet. The Sherborne Missal. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999. Pp. 5, 64. $29.95. ISBN: 0-802-04743-2.

Reviewed by:

Elizabeth Parker McLachlan
Rutgers University

For over a decade, the British Library, in collaboration with various North American presses, has published a series of small quarto monographs on important illuminated manuscripts in its collections. [1] A uniform 64 pages in length, [2] these publications have been characterized by a generous number of high-quality color plates supplemented by numerous black-and- white ones, and by a text at once scholarly and accessible, shorn of footnotes but containing fairly detailed information as to the manuscript's structure and contents, and always a section of "suggested further reading" listing titles covering both general context and specific questions. Janet Backhouse, recently retired as the British Library's Curator of Manuscripts, is the author of several of these, [3] including the most recent and ambitious in the series, Sherborne Missal. Slightly larger than the previous monographs, and the first to be published in hardback, Sherborne Missal's more elaborate format is in keeping with the remarkable scale and grandeur of the actual manuscript, which Backhouse justly describes as "the most spectacular service- book of English execution to have come down to us from the Middle Ages." Produced in the early years of the fifteenth century and still in pristine condition, this monumental Missal numbers 347 pages, measuring 21 x 15 inches. At roughly 10 x 7 inches, therefore, the sixteen color plates of full pages are almost exactly half the size of the original, and their sharp detail allows the viewer to appreciate the delicacy and profusion of ornament, though, even so, a magnifying glass is helpful and some of the inscriptions on the many banderoles defy decipherment. Of the additional four full-page plates and 21 smaller ones, together with thirty in black and white, many show details in close to actual scale: overall, the monograph provides an unprecedented number of color illustrations of this striking manuscript, and an excellent sampling of its staggeringly varied and original ornament.

Not only is the Sherborne Missal one of the most splendid and lavishly illustrated surviving English early-fifteenth-century manuscripts, it is one of only three illuminated English missals of the period to survive at all, and one of very few remaining medieval manuscripts from the Benedictine abbey of Sherborne in Dorset. Evidence for a Sherborne origin is extremely strong and specific, providing many of the book's most interesting features. Both scribe--a Benedictine monk and possibly a member of the abbey community--and head artist, [4] one John Siferwas, a Dominican friar whose work survives in at least two other manuscripts from other centers, are named and portrayed several times within the manuscript, as are also the abbot who presumably commissioned the Missal, Robert Brunyng, who ruled the abbey from 1385 to 1415, and Richard Mitford or Medford, from 1397 to 1407 Bishop of Salisbury, the diocese in which Sherborne was located. In addition, the armorial bearings of Sherborne and of neighboring Benedictine houses, whose early fifteenth-century sculpted counterparts may also still be seen in the abbey sanctuary, and the prominence given in both Calendar and Sanctorale to St. Benedict, founder of the Order and to specifically local saints such as the martyr-saint Juthware and abbot Wulsin who, in emulation of the reforming St. Dunstan, in 998 replaced the secular clergy of Sherborne with Benedictine monks, also provide solid evidence for the missal's provenance and use, as do portrait-initials of early Sherborne bishops in the central text of the Mass itself. The Virgin Mary, patron saint of the abbey church, is also given especial prominence both in the liturgical contents and in the illuminations.

Although it has only one full-page miniature, the Crucifixion on p. 380 preceding the Canon of the Mass, the Sherborne Missal is extremely richly decorated, its text pages bordered or divided by bars entwined with foliage of various types, often studded with medallions containing busts or small vignettes, and provided with pages of lively narrative scenes. Major initials, too, contain narrative images; lesser ones, single figures, busts, images of the Holy Face or elaborate foliate and floral ornament. On the opening text pages for major feasts such as Easter, Nativity, Epiphany, Trinity Sunday, and Pentecost, the left-hand border often contains an elaborate turret-like architectural framework supporting biblical scenes, iconic images of holy personages, and full- length portraits of one or more of the clerics involved in the book's patronage and production, the latter, earthly, figures suitably at the bottom of the structure.

Together with the historiated initials, and other figural decorations, such pages often present a sort of three-, four- or even five-ring circus, combining New and Old Testament, Saints' Lives, doctrinal references, and local elements in a complex program of pairings and cross-references. Emphasis is often placed, as for example on the Easter Sunday page and that of the Preface to the Mass (secula seculorum), on what Backhouse terms the "transition from the Old Dispensation to the New", the typological pairing of characters and events from Old and New Testaments. In a series of pages bearing the prefaces and text of the mass, portrait-medallions and page roundels carry the combination of images and incorporated inscriptions to a new level: portrait cartouches at the lower corners, containing busts of early local bishops, flank roundels containing half-length figures of Benedictine monks and members of other orders displaying scrolls inscribed with abbreviated histories of their institutions. Another series, at the bottom of the pages bearing the Canon of the Mass, contains similar busts of Anglo-Saxon kings displaying charters (complete with realistic pendant seals) outlining their benefactions. The animated figures, exquisite naturalistic detail, rich and brilliant colors, lavish use of gold and love of patterning in backgrounds and on textiles, exemplify the fashion of "international Gothic" but also the individual taste, one suspects, of the chief artist, John Siferwas , a master of structure and design but also an artist of his times who liked a certain "busyness" to his page, both in the number and complexity of the images and ornament, and in the surface detail. The style established by Siferwas , and practiced with the greatest skill by his hand, is basically English but with echoes also of the continent: the pairing of prophets and apostles in the Calendar pages, for example, recalls such French manuscripts as the Grandes Heures of Jean, Duc de Berry of 1409 [5], while the inhabited 'turret' forms in the left-hand margins of some of the more elaborate pages, together with the acute observation of nature and the lavish use of armorials, recall the work of Giovannino Grassi, before 1402, in the Visconti Hours. [6]

Siferwas was indeed a close observer of nature and of humankind. The series of birds, ornithologically accurate and demonstrably of British habitat, labeled with their English names, that accompany the prefaces and canon of the Mass are remarkable if not unique. And it is possible to see in the contemporary portraits, particularly those of Siferwas , specific and individual features of recognizable portrait quality: Whas' long head bears a rather rectangular, square- chinned face, while Siferwas' portraits show a rounder head, and a slightly snub-nosed and generally cheerful countenance below a spreading natural tonsure of fluffy, greying hair. The face of Robert Brunyng , who appears approximately 100 times in the Missal, is somewhat more generic but fairly consistently characterized by full lips and drooping eyebrows that give it a somewhat melancholy aspect. He is depicted wearing a remarkable collection of embroidered vestments which are recorded, characteristically, in minute and loving detail, which the color plates allow us to appreciate fully.

The fifteen-page catalogue entry for the Sherborne Missal in Kathleen Scott's survey of later Gothic manuscripts produced in Britain [7], published in 1996, lists an extensive bibliography for the manuscript, but most entries indicate brief discussions in works whose main focus is not, in fact, the Missal itself. The two major earlier publications on the manuscript, J.Wickham's study of 1896 of its liturgical content, and J. A. Herbert's partial facsimile of 1920, together with Scott's monographic discussion, provide detailed information as to its textual contents, lists of specific images, and numerous black- and-white illustrations, as well as information concerning its provenance, analysis of the artistic hands, and discussion of their possible sources and influences, much of it in dense and technical language. In the relatively brief text accompanying her 71 illustrations, Janet Backhouse provides a very readable and thorough introduction to the Missal, in language combining precision with a very evident enthusiasm for the manuscript's artistic qualities. Beginning with the historical context of late fourteenth- and early fifteenth-century Dorset, the history of Sherborne Abbey and its diocese, and the personal histories of the four clerics portrayed in the Missal and evidently involved in its commissioning and production, she presents clearly the evidence for its provenance and patronage. The Missal is then discussed in context as one of the three highly decorated Missals surviving from this era. We are then led in orderly fashion through the individual sections of the Missal, with brief but informative explanations of their significance and function as texts for the Mass throughout the year, and discussion of significant full-page programs and individual scenes. One need not be learned in the liturgy or Christian iconography in order to follow her through the complex programs of major Division pages, or to understand her expositions of religious feasts and scenes, and their contextual significance for the abbey community at Sherborne. And while it is clearly impossible to deal exhaustively with the 357-page manuscript in its full range and variety, we are given an excellent overview of its most important illuminations and their primary themes.

Having surveyed the manuscript's contents and decoration, Backhouse returns, at the end of the book, to the Missal's place in the very small surviving group of medieval Sherborne manuscripts, and an evaluation of the evidence concerning its patrons and craftsmen, recounting what is known of their biographies, setting them in the context of local history, and suggesting directions for future investigation, such as the further analysis of sources and iconography. She concludes with an account of the history of the abbey of Sherborne and of the post-Reformation travels of the Missal, up to its purchase in 1800 by Hugh, second duke of Northumberland. The manuscript remained at Alnwick Castle, seat of the dukes of Northumberland, until 1983 when it was deposited on loan at the British Museum; in 1998 it was acquired by the British Library, where it is now Additional MS 74236. Although its ducal owners were apparently generous in granting scholars access to the Sherborne Missal, the fact that it remained until recently in private hands has no doubt been a factor in its remarkably minimal public exposure; this began to change in 1983 when it was placed on exhibit in the British Library, and its final acquisition by that institution in 1998 is celebrated by Backhouse 's book. While the Missal is clearly deserving of a complete color facsimile with accompanying scholarly commentaries and full catalogue of images, such a publication would be beyond the means of individual scholars, and of all but a few libraries. Janet Backhouse 's monographic study, on the other hand, makes available to individual scholars and manuscript-lovers an excellent introduction and generous selection of finely-reproduced images, at a price that makes it accessible to all, and will help to gain for the manuscript the attention and exposure it richly merits.


[1] These include: J. Backhouse, Becket Leaves (London: British Library, 1988); ibid., Luttrell Psalter (London: British Library, 1989); ibid., Bedford Hours (London: British Library, 1990); Mark Evans, Sforza Hours (London: British Library, 1992); J. Backhouse, Isabella Breviary (London: British Library, 1993); Claire Donovan, Winchester Bible (London, British Library and Winchester Cathedral Enterprises, 1993).

[2] Exceptionally, Becket Leaves has only 32 pages.

[3] Becket Leaves, Luttrell Psalter, Bedford Hours, Isabella Breviary; and the miniature, but 64- page, hardback, Lindisfarne Gospels (London: British Library, 1995), on which she had already published a popular monograph with Phaidon, in 1981.

[4] For an analysis of the division of artistic hands, see Kathleen L. Scott, Later Gothic Manuscripts, 1390-1490 (London: Harvey Miller, 1996), cat.9, pp. 45-60, esp. pp. 52 ff.

[5] Paris, Bibliotheque Nationale de France, MS lat. 919. See Marcel Thomas, Grandes Heures of Jean, Duke of Berry (New York: Braziller , 1971).

[6] Florence, Biblioteca Nazionale , MSS Banco 397 and Landau Finaly 22. Most of Giovannino's miniatures are in the Banco section.

[7] See n. 4 above.

[8] J.Wickham , "Liturgical Notes on the Sherborne Missal, A Manuscript in the Possession of the Duke of Northumberland at Alnwick Castle," Transactions of the St. Paul's Ecclesiastical Society IV (1896), 1-31; James Alexander Herbert, Sherborne Missal: Reproductions of Full Pages and Details of Ornament from the Missal executed between the years 1396 and 1407 for Sherborne Abbey Church and now preserved in the Library of the Duke of Northumberland at Alnwick Castle (Oxford, Roxburghe Club, 1920).