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​WUDPAC Class of 2016 alumna Cathie Magee is currently the Andrew W. Mellon Fellow in Book Conservation at the Walters Art Museum, and her work on the late 12th/early 13th c. St. Francis Missal is the subject of a feature article in Spring 2018 issue of the museum's Members Magazine:

Behind the Scenes: Reviving a Relic

In the Book and Paper Conservation Laboratory at the Walters Art Museum, an exceptional object is undergoing intensive study and treatment: the St. Francis Missal, a 12th-century Italian illuminated book of prayers purchased by Henry Walters. Designed for use during Catholic Mass, the Missal is inscribed by hand in black ink with three, fill-page illuminations. The most elaborate illustration marks the part of the Mass preceding Communion. The figures of Mary and John the Evangelist stand next to Jesus on the cross, while two angels hover overhead. An intricate, woven pattern in red and blue frames the scene.

Privately commissioned by a patron of a local church, the Missal was designed to be used regularly for years. While it lacks the gilding seen in other illuminated manuscripts, the rich colors found on these pages would not necessarily have been easy to obtain—nor would they be inexpensive. Lynley Herbert, Robert and Nancy Hall Assistant Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts, notes that while the St. Francis Missal may not seem especially beautiful or precious to our modern eyes, it would have been viewed very differently by its medieval users: “The amount of time and money that went into its creation, from the parchment it is written on to the many pigments used in its illuminations, would have represented a significant investment. It likely was the most important manuscript owned by the church.”

The Missal isn’t just important; it is legendary. St. Francis is said to have consulted the manuscript during a visit to the Church of San Nicolo in Assisi in 1208. With two of his followers, Francis opened the Missal at random three times and the Gospel passages they read became the foundations for the Franciscan Rule—guidelines that friars still live by today. Now considered by many religious communities to be a relic of St. Francis, this sacred object attracts visitors from around the world.

Unfortunately, the Missal’s poor condition meant that it could no longer be safely handled or exhibited. Clearly a well-used and well-loved manuscript, hand-written notations and alterations are scattered across the pages, as the contents were revised over centuries. Constant use meant it has needed repair several times during its long life. The original binding became so worn that it did not adequately protect the pages, so in the 15th century it was replaced with a plain binding of beech boards and a leather spine. Insects eventually chewed away at these boards and some areas of the parchment, riddling the wood with holes. Walters conservators discovered other issues, too: sometime in the 19th century, a large crack in the beech boards was repaired, and new leather applied to the spine. While this type of damage is not uncommon for medieval books, the Missal’s remarkable association with St. Francis is unique. Committed to keeping this sacred and fascinating object assessable to visitors, the Walters began the laborious task of treatment in 2017.

The Missal is being conserved by Cathie Magee, Andrew W. Mellon Fellow in Book Conservation. The endowed Mellon Fellowship, which rotates between the three labs within the Department of Conservation and Technical Research at the Walters, provides an important training opportunity for art conservator at the start of their careers. Abigail Quandt, Head of Book and Paper Conservation and an internationally recognized expert in the field of parchment conservation, is working closely with Magee on this challenging and complex multi-year effort.

In order to properly conserve all of the components of the Missal, Magee and Quandt must carefully take it apart to allow access to the weakest areas. The work of disbinding and mending is done slowly and in stages, and Magee carefully documents her discoveries. It is cautious work, and Magee is ever conscious of the Missal’ status as a religious relic. After snipping the 15th-century threads that hold the parchment folios together, Magee will mend the Missal page by page, using an exceptionally thin Japanese paper and a reversible adhesive. All conservation processes at the Walters are done with reversibility in mind: conservators often find themselves having to undo older efforts as technology and techniques advance.

Magee and Quandt will fill cracks and losses in the wooden boards with a special adhesive, and the leather spine, now brittle and powdery with age, will be replaced with new leather. After treatment the conservation lab will work with Walters digitization specialists to photograph each page in high-resolution for Ex-Libris, the museum’s digital manuscript site, making the Missal’s text and illuminations accessible to scholars and devotees across the globe.

In addition to physical treatment, the Missal is undergoing extensive scientific analysis. The Walters’ conservation lab is equipped with x-ray machines and other specialized instruments to help conservators to better understand the Missal’s composition and the extent of any alterations or damage. Ultraviolet and infrared lights help reveal erasures in the text and alterations to the illuminated miniatures. Analysis of the DNA extracted from the parchment can identify the species of animals used to produce the manuscript’s support. This analysis is crucial to understanding the Missal’s full story.

In time, Magee and Quandt will expertly sew the Missal back together and cover it with new leather, so that eventually visitors to the Walters may once more marvel at this legendary text.

(This article appears in The Walters Art Museum Members Magazine, Spring 2018, pages 4-7.)

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WUDPAC alumna Cathie Magee is undertaking the daunting task of treating a 12th-century missal at the Walters Art Museum.

​WUDPAC alumna Cathie Magee is undertaking the daunting task of treating a 12th-century missal at the Walters Art Museum.

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  • The Department of Art Conservation
  • 303 Old College
  • University of Delaware
  • Newark, DE 19716, USA
  • Phone: 302-831-3489