Pages from the Ranworth Antiphoner showing the illumination for Trinity Sunday
The Antiphoner is a high quality medieval service book. It is most likely to have been written by professional scribes in Norwich around the year 1460. It is likely that it would have taken two scribes and an illuminator about a year to produce this book. It is much larger the the antiphonals generally used in services. Therefore it is likely that it was commissioned as a display book for a wealthy local household. It would have occupied a prominent position in the house and would have been left to Ranworth church by its former owner. There is a reference to an antiphonal left by William Cobb to St Helen's church in his will of 1478. However there are no inscriptions in the Ranworth Antiphoner linking to his family. The Antiphoner's calendar records members of the Holdich family and their relatives. The Holdichs were Ranworth's leading family and it is possible that the Antiphoner came from their household. When it was given to the church, the offices for St. Helen were added at the back. This is the only surviving English example of her feast days services.
The Antiphoner has 285 sheepskin pages with 19 illuminated pictorial initials. The Easter page, which would have been richly decorated, is missing. Written in Medieval Latin, it contains psalms, hymns, and antiphons (responsory sentences) set to plain song for the 7 daily services sung by clerks in parish churches throughout the year. These services followed the Sarum (Salisbury) pattern, which was used in most of Southern England and the Midlands from the thirteenth century until 1549.
The Ranworth Antiphoner was taken away during the reign of Edward VI (1547-1553). Instead of being burnt, it was probably hidden in a Catholic household. It re-appeared in the nineteenth century, when it was purchased by the banker and book collector Frederick Huth, who cropped the pages and had it rebound. Following his death it was put back on the market, and was noticed in the saleroom window by Colonel Holdich, who recognised his ancestors’ names in the calendar and its connection with Ranworth. It was purchased for St. Helen’s Church in 1911 by Mr. John Cator.
Before the Reformation, every parish church in England would have possessed at least one antiphoner. Only Ranworth retains its antiphoner today.
Each section of the psalter and services for major festivals and saints' days, were begun with an ornamented or illuminated capital letter, which helped the users find the right place. The Antiphoner's illuminations are fine examples of the high quality work produced in East Anglia during this period. The precious materials used, such as gold leaf and ultramarine blue, demonstrated the wealth and taste of the purchaser as much as the illuminator's artistry.
Saint Anne lies in a canopied bed attended by a midwife
In this Antiphoner they used various vegetable dyes, semi-precious blue lapis lazuli [ultramarine blue] and gold leaf, laid oon with egg-white and burnished with agate, to create lavish, glowing borders. Then, using some well-knownimages and some highly original ones they painted the nineteen sumptuous illuminated initials.