One of the most ambitious artistic enterprises of twelfth-century England, the Winchester Bible offers a critical glimpse into the process of its creation, in part, because it was left unfinished.
A formidable effort to obtain the necessary parchment for the Bible's exceptionally large bi-folios, or double-spread pages (23 x 31 1/4 inches), required more than 250 calf hides. Consequently, the making of this giant Bible was a major economic investment; it was time-consuming both to procure the appropriate calf skins and to prepare each to the same qualitative standard—by soaking them in a lye-water solution, scraping off the hair and skin, and stretching, drying, and further processing the hides. We know that Master Hugo, who was making a great Bible for the Abbey of Bury St. Edmunds around 1135 (Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 2), could not find materials locally and had to obtain them in Ireland.
The organization of the prepared parchment into multiple quires of four bi-folios necessitated that each be uniformly pricked for ruling. This was accomplished by lightly scoring lines into the parchment on which the scribe would write the text. A single scribe wrote the entire Winchester Bible, which consists of 468 folios, or 936 pages. As the word was paramount, the scribe—probably a senior member of the scriptorium of Winchester's Priory of St. Swithun—utilized an elegant Latin script that is both uniform and clear. One page might have taken a day to write, so the entire production of writing alone could have taken a number of years.
At least six different talented artists worked on the illuminations of the Bible over a twenty-five-year period, from about 1150 to 1175, but ultimately left the decoration unfinished. These unnamed artists were given modern names in the 1940s by Walter Oakeshott, the first art historian to have studied the Winchester Bible systematically; they are Genesis Master, Master of the Apocrypha Drawings, Master of the Leaping Figures, Master of the Morgan Leaf, Master of the Gothic Majesty, and Amalekite Master.
Often one artist established the basic composition with a drypoint drawing, which would later be painted by another artist, but sometimes the drypoints were left unfinished (Fig. 1). Here the underdrawing by the Master of the Leaping Figures and gilding are clearly evident. The scribe has left space for the initial V and a note of instruction as to the subject to be depicted. Before paint is applied, gesso is laid down as a support; gilding or silver is then applied and burnished prior to any colors being added in layers to modulate drapery and facial features.
The Master of the Genesis Initial, who painted the Moses and the Brazen Serpent initial (Fig. 2), enhanced the surface with punched patterns in the gilded or silvered areas; this embellishment is also noticed elsewhere. This inventive artist also created figures moving into space, some turning their backs to the reader, a striking surprise at this date.
The work of the Amalekite Master (Fig. 3) appears to have utilized a design of the Master of the Leaping Figures; it is an action scene of warriors wearing contemporary armor. The baseline of the letter E forms the stage space for the action.
All of the artists working on the Winchester Bible employed basic pigments of the period taken from mineral, animal, and plant sources. They include blue (ultramarine), red (vermilion), orange (red lead), green (copper-based verdigris or malachite), yellow (iron oxides), black (carbon), and white (lead white). Rarer than the gold featured in the image of Ecclesiastes above (Fig. 1) is the ultramarine, which was made from lapis lazuli, the only source of which was in Afghanistan. Thus, even when looking at the Bible in its unfinished state, one can begin to understand the scale of the masterpiece that was likely intended to be unsurpassed in its day.