The Benedictional of St. Aethelwold

The Benedictional of St. Aethelwold is an illuminated manuscript created in Winchester around 970.
  Anglo-Saxon art is generally regarded as rather peripheral to the main thrust of the development of medieval art. In some ways this is understandable - there isn't a great deal of it left.  But works such as this demonstrate the quality - and uniqueness - of what was created in England before the arrival of the Normans. 
   The manuscript contains 28 full page illuminations; originally there were probably 15 more. Other pages have decorative borders and historiated initials. 

  What is a benedictional?

  It is a book of blessings or benedictions used at the mass on specific feast days in the liturgical calendar.  Books of complete liturgical texts for the celebrant of the Mass,  sacramentaries, contained these blessings and these were the source for benedictionals. Compared with other liturgical texts benedictionals are relatively uncommon. 

  Who was Aethelwold?

 He was the Bishop of Winchester from 963  to 984. He was a true Wintonian, being born in Winchester some time in the first decade of the tenth century.  Before his bishopric he studied at Glastonbury Abbey and was made Abbott of the monastery at Abingdon. He is noted for his revitalisation of the Benedictine rule in England. He had the ear of the then king, Edgar, which enabled him to introduce sweeping reforms; in particular he replaced secular clerics whom he regarded as impure with Benedictine ones.  He was clearly not a gentle soul, or a man to be trifled with: not long after he had been consecrated bishop of Winchester he organised, via King Edgar, a military confrontation at the Old and New Minster at Winchester, removing the existing clergy and replacing them with Monks rather more to his liking from Abingdon.
  It is a matter of some debate why a man with a belief in austerity  and the harsh monastic rule should have commissioned such a lavish item as his benedictional. 

  Unique features

  The content of the book would pinpoint its origin even if this was not well known: It includes blessings for the feast days of English saints, St Aetheldreda (or Aethelthryth) of Ely and, importantly, Winchester's own saint  St. Swithin, who rather unfairly gets the blame for rotten summer weather here in Winchester.
  At that time there were two forms of the Liturgy, the standard Gregorian and the Gallican rite, used, as its name suggests, in Norman France. This benedictional provided a synthesis, offering both versions for the major feasts. 

History of the Benedictional

  Unlike most early manuscripts, this is an easy one as the story of its commission is included in it.

  'A bishop, the great Aethelwold, whom the Lord had made patron of Winchester, ordered a certain monk subject to him to write the present book... He commanded also to be made in this book many frames well adorned and filled with various figures decorated with many beautiful colours and with gold... Let all who look upon this book pray always that after the term of the flesh I may abide in heaven – Godeman the scribe, as a suppliant, earnestly asks this.'

  Whether Godeman the scribe was also the artist is not known.  It has been suggested that he was Aethelwold's chaplain.

Manuscript illumination in Winchester

  The 'Winchester style' from the tenth century onwards was noted for its decorative exuberance.  It was based on Carolingian models but went much further, especially in  the use of foliage as decoration - the so called acanthus leaves. The motif was familiar in Anglo-Saxon England, though not drawn from life - there was no acanthus in Winchester then. (There is now - it's a popular garden plant locally).

Decoration from the Benedictional

  Acanthus as decoration

   Acanthus is a Mediterranean plant noted for its  spiky, deep cut foliage. It has been used as decoration from early times, in, for example, the capitals of Corinthian columns. 
  Its Christian usage went far beyond simple decoration. The luxuriant foliage reflected the theology of the Incarnation and the Passion that saw these events as a second creation, a spiritual rebirth. 

Capital from the Pantheon, Rome

Acanthus Mollis

Two Carolingian examples of acanthus decoration

Detail of 9th century Ivory plaque from Rheims.
Musée de Picardie à Amiens

Historiated initial from Drogo Sacramentary, 9th century.  
Bibliothèque Nationale de France

On to pages from the Benedictional

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