Local history and 800-year-old Glastonbury Bible page goes on public display at its original home for the first time

By Emma Dance

5th Aug 2022 | Local News

The page is now on display in Glastonbury Abbey
The page is now on display in Glastonbury Abbey

A double page from a bible written by monks at the world-famous Glastonbury Abbey in Somerset has returned to its home 800 years after it was written.

The roughly A5-sized full colour, two-sided page has gone on public display for the first time in the UK.

Featuring Latin text, ornate lettering and full colour decoration, the hand-written page contains the beginning of the Old Testament Books of Chronicles, narrating the history of Israel and Judah from the Creation, and is thought to have been written in the 13th century.

The first word of the book, Adam, is marked by a beautifully illustrated 'A', made up of interlocking creatures and foliage. The impressive writing and intricate initial letters demonstrate the monks' passion for scripture and their careful scholarship.

How old is old

While the exact age of the page is unknown, studies show it is believed to have been written in the abbey's scriptorium between 1225 and 1250.

Written on vellum paper (prepared animal skin), the coloured writing and decorations were produced using a technique known as tempera, in which pigments - usually taken from natural materials such as stone, minerals and soil - were mixed with a water-soluble emulsion, usually an egg yolk. This technique had been used for centuries until it started to phase out in the 13th century, giving another indication of the bible's age.

The historical artefact has been loaned to the abbey by Bristol University, which bought the double-sided page two years ago at auction, and has been using it as a teaching resource as part of its Special Collections.

Abbeys played a key role in the growth of higher education in the 13th century and beyond, and Glastonbury Abbey was especially famous for its vast library of books and manuscripts. When King Henry VIII ordered the dissolution of the abbey in 1539 and the execution of its Abbot on Glastonbury Tor, the library and its contents were destroyed, dispersed or sold.

A Glastonbury mystery

What happened to the Glastonbury bible after this is something of a mystery. There was no news of a new owner until it surfaced in the collections of the 18th century politician and antiquarian Roger Gale (1672-1744). Gale was a noted bibliophile, and the library at his Yorkshire estate contained about 450 books, including 3 of the 35 known to have survived from Glastonbury Abbey.

The bible's whereabouts remained unknown for a further 240 years until it surfaced at Southeby's Auction House in London, where it was bought by a manuscript dealer from Ohio in the 1980s who went on to dismantle it and sold it page-by-page.

Since then, pages of the bible have been uncovered around the world, including in Cleveland Museum of Art in the United States, while the main bulk of the bible has been acquired and rebound by Oslo Cathedral School in Norway.

More details about the Glastonbury bible page can be found on the abbey's website: www.glastonburyabbey.com/blogs/the-glastonbury-bible-project/the-glastonbury-bible-fragment.php

Tickets to enter Glastonbury Abbey in Somerset start from under £10, while children can enter for free if accompanied by a paying adult. They can be bought online: www.glastonburyabbey.com. There is no additional charge to view the bible page which is on display in the abbey's museum.

The bible page remains on public display at Glastonbury Abbey until October 2.

The abbey's Collections Manager Lucy Newman said: "This is so exciting for us. It's like a tiny jewel because it's so small yet so important in the history of the abbey. It's such a beautiful object; to think that so much work and detail could have gone into such a small page, and the age of it is just incredible.

"The quality of it is utterly amazing, considering its age, and it's the workmanship that would have gone into writing it that's astonishing, when you consider the writing materials they would have had to use 800 years ago."

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