Canterbury Cathedral Library is revealing priceless treasures from its archive with the help of modern technology. T. Thurai reports on this ground-breaking venture.

Picture This: Canterbury Cathedral reveals its hidden treasure

When viewing the breath-taking beauty of Canterbury Cathedral, visitors often forget what lies behind the scenes; if, indeed, they are even aware of it. But, from the cool tranquillity of the Cloisters, a steep set of steps leads to another world: the Cathedral library. 

Altogether the library hosts some 50,000 volumes – most of them donated since the Reformation – covering subjects as diverse as medicine, archaeology, natural history and the anti-slavery campaign. Among this ocean of books are five noteworthy collections:

(i) The largest individual collection is the Howley-Harrison collection. Donated to the Dean and Chapter in 1887 and consisting of 16,000 books and pamphlets, this includes some fine 15th and 16th century Books of Hours.

(ii) The Elham Parish library consists of a very personal library, reflecting the interests of the Warly and Oxinden families of Barham. Spanning some 200 years, this eclectic collection features works on literature, travel and religion as well as Civil War tracts.

(iii) One of the most charming – and unusual – collections is that of the parish of Preston-next-Wingham whose remaining 41volumes are still kept in their original white-painted, oak carrying case.

(iv) The musical legacy of the Canterbury Catch Club. One of the foremost social clubs in Canterbury between the 18th and 19th centuries, the Club’s members met together to sing catches (rounds), glees, duets and solos.

(v) The Mendham Collection: a unique collection of Catholic and anti-Catholic literature dating from the 14th century. On deposit from The Law Society, this collection has recently come to prominence due to a vigorous campaign by the Cathedral and University of Kent to prevent its dispersal and sale.

Because so many of the Library’s books are delicate and need to be carefully preserved, the Library is not open to the public. However, thanks to a new scheme – and the wonders of modern technology – it is now able to put some of its hidden treasures on display while protecting their delicate artwork and materials. 

For the next twelve months, a different picture from the Library’s valuable, illuminated manuscripts will be posted on the Cathedral’s website accompanied by a specially-written, explanatory text.

Entitled “Picture This”, the venture was the brainchild of Cathedral librarian Karen Brayshaw and PhD student Jayne Wackett. It represents a co-operative venture between the Library and the Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Studies, University of Kent.

To celebrate its launch, “Picture This” features an illustration of the Annunciation from a 14th c Book of Hours. This is particularly appropriate because the Annunciation was usually the first picture in these devotional works which contained the eight offices of the day, that is, sequences of prayer and devotion consisting of: Matins (midnight or during the night); Lauds (dawn or 3 a.m.); Prime (6 a.m.); Terce (9 a.m.); Sext (12 noon); None (3 p.m.); Vespers (6 p.m.); Compline (9 p.m.).

Written by Jayne Wackett, the article that accompanies the first picture in this series provides a fascinating commentary on the symbolism of medieval art. Elements such as the positioning of hands, the colour of a robe, or a hairstyle had a significance which was readily understood by medieval observers although now their meaning is obscure to modern viewers. Yet an understanding of that hidden language can give an insight into the workings of the medieval mind.

And there’s more. If your appetite is whetted by this beautiful picture and its accompanying text, Jayne has also listed a couple of books for further reading.

Here is the link to this month’s “Picture This” item: See if you can spot the half-man, half-beast hybrid playing the bagpipes!

Additional information:

For a fantastic virtual tour of Canterbury Cathedral, click here. Note the little camera icons that give you intimate views of inaccessible areas of the Cathedral. Clicking on the ‘History’ tab (lower left corner) will give you a brief summary of each area of the Cathedral as it is viewed by the camera.

For Canterbury Cathedral home page click here.

For further background to the Cathedral’s history, click here.

For T. Thurai’s website, click here.