By Brian Andrews, Archdiocese of Hobart Heritage Officer

During the nineteenth century, and until the 1960s, Tasmanian Catholic priests celebrated Mass using altar missals that were the direct cultural descendants of the illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages.

In their design, format and illustrations, these books were the product of a thousand years of continuous evolution.

Following substantial changes in the liturgy heralded by the Second Vatican Council, including the adoption of the vernacular tongue, traditional altar missals and other liturgical books were abruptly discarded, some finding their way into antique shops, and some eventually into the rubbish bin after years of storage in sacristy cupboards.

This has been a sad loss, for many were objects of undoubted beauty, shedding light on the taste and cultural preferences of earlier times.

In South Australia, some seventy-one of these precious liturgical books were acquired from parishes and religious houses, then donated to the State Library of South Australia.

They are now safeguarded for posterity in its Rare Book Collection.

Altar missals published by major European liturgical presses, such as Desclée & Cie, Frederick Pustet, A. Mame, H. Dessain and the Vatican, were invariably illustrated with splendid engravings illuminating the principal feasts of the Church’s year.

The more expensive of these publications made extensive use of sumptuous colour. An excellent example of such latter books is the missal formerly at St Patrick’s, Blessington, a church which was opened in 1919 and closed just over eighty years later in 2001.

Published in 1901 by Desclée of Tournai and Rome, the missal was likely in the church from the beginning. Its profuse use of colour includes historiated capitals, a frontispiece, the title page, a glorious crucifixion scene facing the section containing the Canon of the Mass, and illustrations for the major feast days, all of them in the Gothic style.

Tags: Heritage Conservation