Treasures Unveiled (1): A Durham Missal from the 15th century

To launch our new blog, here we present a series of vignettes of intriguing, and often beautiful, items from our Collections.  Durham Cathedral has custody of a breathtaking array of artefacts, spanning hundreds of years of history; to learn more, you might like to visit  http://www.durhamcathedral.co.uk/heritage/collections.

Our first post in this Treasures Unveiled series is a 15th century Missal from the parish Church of St. Nicholas in Durham.

Here is shown a full-page illustration of the Crucifixion, found in its traditional place in this Missal – before the Canon of the Mass, the core of the service.

Here is a full-page illustration of the Crucifixion, found in its traditional place in this Missal – before the Canon of the Mass, the core of the service (© Durham Cathedral Library)

A Missal was a book which contained all the necessary material for a priest to conduct services in Latin; their survival today is rare, as all Missals and Latin service books were removed from churches in 1549, with the introduction of the first Book of Common Prayer (which set out services in English).  It is thought that this manuscript was perhaps saved by someone locally.

Additions to the calendar at the front of the Missal of feast days for St. Oswin of Tynemouth (died 651) and St. John of Beverley (d. 721) suggest that this manuscript was acquired by a church in North East England sometime before 1500; the prominence given to the feast day of St. Nicholas suggests strongly that it may have been the key service book used at either St. Nicholas’s Church in Durham marketplace, or in the Prior’s Chapel, dedicated to St. Nicholas.

Although lavish, the illustration shown here is not of particularly high quality, and a high level of use and handling throughout services means it has become worn and rubbed; a mark near the foot of the cross shows where the priest’s nose would have touched the vellum when he went to kiss the foot of the Cross.  However, the image of Christ on the cross – surrounded by the Virgin Mary and St. John – is highly evocative, with the skull and bones at his feet representing Golgotha (also known as Calvary), the location in Jerusalem of the Crucifixion.

We hope you have enjoyed this insight into a manuscript, and that you continue to journey with us as we delve into further treasures…

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