State Library of South Australia

A State Library Treasure - Antiphonal

Date: 21 March 2016

The 13th century Italian Antiphonal is often named as the Library's greatest treasure. It is also our oldest written item bound in book form. Purchased by the Friends of the Library in 1945 for the then sizeable figure of £77, it is today worth many times more.

13th Century Antiphonal
13th Century Antiphonal

The Antiphonal was created in a monastery, probably in northern Italy, much in the manner portrayed in the Name of the Rose. Constructed of 180 folded sheets of vellum (in this case calf skin) between oak boards, its creation represents a considerable investment. As well as the herd of young animals that went into its pages, a number of lavishly decorated capitals contain real gold and Lapis Lazuli.

What is an antiphonal?

As the name suggests, it is all about singing. The Antiphonal contains the sung responses for the annual daily religious services held between Christmas and Epiphany - the twelve days of Christmas.

Measuring some 60 x 114cm, with a spine 15cm thick, and with large print, the Antiphonal was designed with the intention of being placed on a lectern with the gathered monks standing around to sing the responses.

The seven hundred year old volume was the subject of a joint conservation project between ArtLab and State Library conservators in 1992. A mixture of ancient techniques and new technology saw painstaking work on the manuscript to ensure its future survival.

View the Antiphonal online

In 1998 the Antiphonal was a central focus of the Adelaide Festival, with live performances and the release of an online version.

Like all the Library's treasures, use of the Antiphonal is carefully monitored by the Library's Senior Conservator, Peter Zajicek. But curatorial staff show the magnificent piece during specialist treasures tours, the next being hosted by the Friends of the Library on 14 June this year.


Story by: Anthony Laube, Customer Contact Librarian

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