December 11, 2014
Winchester Cathedral wants to track down eight Medieval illuminations that are missing from the greatest surviving 12th-century English Bible. These may have been stolen in the past 150 years, so there is a reasonable chance that they survive, probably unrecognised in a private collection.
The Winchester Bible was commissioned by the cathedral’s bishop in 1160. Christopher de Hamel, a specialist in Medieval manuscripts, describes it as “the finest English illuminated manuscript outside the British Library”. It remained in Winchester and was never used as a working Bible, because not all of the illuminations had been completed.
In an essay on the Winchester Bible, published this month to coincide with an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Roland Riem, the cathedral’s vice-dean, reveals details of one of the thefts. On 16 August 1927, the thief wrote a bizarre letter to Francis Madge, the cathedral’s librarian, admitting that while he was being shown the Bible, he had removed an illuminated letter “S” from one of the manuscript’s pages. “That initial ‘S’ now ranks as the cornerstone of my possessions,” the thief wrote. The “S”, from the prologue to the Book of Joel, is indeed missing.
The library also has a note that was written in 1907, recording the fact that an indignant verger had been offered a bribe to look away while someone removed “a souvenir” from the Bible, although the would-be thief was presumably thwarted on this occasion.
Riem is keen to find the missing illuminations. “If the initials were removed within the past century or so, then there is a good chance that some still survive, but without being linked to the Winchester Bible. Tracking down these lost illuminations would be a marvellous contribution to the story of this great Bible’s conservation and interpretation.”
The eight missing initials are E, H, P, S and O (two initials, one cut in a circular form); an illumination of Jonah, probably emerging from the whale; and one unknown initial.
Six artists are believed to have worked on the Winchester Bible. Most of the lost illuminations, all of which have text on the reverse, are by the Master of the Genesis Initial, who is distinguishable by his robust figures with intense, frowning faces, painted using a strong palette of red and blue.
Jo Bartholomew, the cathedral’s current librarian, says it is “possible that the initials were all removed at one time by someone who particularly liked that artist”.
A ninth initial, for the Vision of Obadiah, was stolen but later recovered. It was identified at Sledmere House, East Yorkshire, in 1948. The cathedral bought it back for £400 and stitched it into the text (as shown above). A market source says that single initials from the Winchester Bible could now be worth up to £1m on the open market.
The book’s double-page frontispiece was also removed, possibly when the volume was rebound in 1820. The frontispiece was once owned by a Florentine book dealer, who offered it for £100 to William Morris, but the craftsman could not afford it. The leaf was bought by John Pierpont Morgan in 1912, and remains in the Morgan Library & Museum in New York. It is being lent to the Metropolitan for its forthcoming show, which will be the first time that the Winchester Bible has left England.
"The Winchester Bible: a Masterpiece of Medieval Art” is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, until 9 March 2015. For a preview of the show, see our What's On section