Bricks • Mortar • Imagination • Words

The Texts - John Constable


In the library with the Curator, John Hardacre. He warms to my interest in the Winchester Bible. The large leather-bound volumes are on display in a glass case, open at selected chapters. We admire the illuminated capitals.

'The lapis lazuli was from the mountains of Afghanistan, brought in along the silk route. Incredibly precious! Remember we're talking twelfth century.'

He ushers me through to a cordoned-off section of the library, its shelves stacked with leather-bound Latin tomes, theological discourses and monastic archives, a first edition of John Donne's poems - all arranged according to an arcane cataloguing system. A volume of the Winchester Bible is open on a table. A Japanese woman, a graduate student of art history, delicately turns a page with white-gloved hands.

'Misa, this is John, our new poet-in-residence. Do you mind if we interrupt you?'

John Hardacre points out that the entire Bible was transcribed in a single hand, though the name of the scribe is unknown. He shows me the corrections made by the editor, turning to a page with a string of tiny notes in the margin:

'Bad hair day!'

'Do we know the name of the illustrator?'

'No. He's known as The Master of the Leaping Figures.'

'They do seem to dance on air.'

Then, to my amazement, he runs his ungloved hands over the page:

'Go on! Feel it! Smell it!'

I stroke the mottled vellum, put my nose to the page and inhale deeply - the scent of eight-hundred year old calfskin - the past flooding into me, like old wine.

In the back of my mind I hear the squeal of rewound tapes, glimpse a flickering superimposition.

In the scriptorum, with its vivid mural, Godwin shows Benedict a bound volume of the Winchester Bible, urging him to touch and sniff the then two-hundred-year-old hide.

The mural fades as Benedict inhales deeply, catching a faint whiff of urine, and I recall that the scriptorum has since been requisitioned for staff toilets.

It occurs to me that the entire Cathedral is somehow like this book, as if one were wading through language itself, a form of living information.

John Hardacre reads my mind: 'For many medieval students it's more practical to study the Bible on microfilm, but I thought you might want to connect with something more?'



Master of the Leaping

Figure, dancing on the Firmament,

Defying gravity, lapis

Lazuli blue.

Ask God to grant us

That same lightness of step

To balance on the threshold

And to pass through.

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