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.