Scroll of the Dead of the Saint Bavo’s Abbey

This peculiar object is currently being kept at the Saint Bavo’s Cathedral at Ghent. It measures 30 meters in length and consists of 52 sheets of parchment sewn together. This scroll was recognised as a Flemish masterpiece in November 2019.

In the city of Ghent, at the confluence of de ‘Schelde’ en ‘de Leie’, there’s a well-hidden green pearl: the ruins of the Saint Bavo’s Abbey. The Abbey was founded in the 7th century by Amandus van Gent and flourished in the 11th century. It was notorious for its rivalry with nearby Saint Peter’s Abbey. In 1536, the monks were transferred to the Saint Bavo’s Cathedral which meant the end of the Abbey. The building was destroyed in 1540 by order of Karel V. Various objects escaped the destruction and can enlighten us with the rich history of the Abbey. One of those objects is the 1406 Scroll of the Dead. This peculiar object was recognised as a Flemish masterpiece in November 2019. It is currently being kept at the Saint Bavo’s Cathedral and is considered a part of the Saint Bavo’s and Ghent Diocese’s archive.

The Saint Bavo’s Scroll of the Dead was manufactured on the 23rd of October 1406, by order of the abbot Joris van Zichelen, for the salvation of the souls of the departed abbots Jan III, Wouter III and a few other members of the abbey community. It was customary in the late middle ages to organise a prayer chain when a brother or benefactor of the monastery died. The biographical information of the deceased was added on a so called scroll of the dead. They then carried it around to other religious institutions as a way to notify the religious community of the demise of one of their members. The Scroll of the Dead of the Saint Bavo’s Abbey visited about twenty Benedictine abbeys until 1408.

The Scroll of the Dead has a unique form: it is made out of 52 sheets of vellum sewn together and measures 30 meters. The end is attached to a wooden cylinder, covered with a leather cover decorated with blind tooling and copper furnishings. One of the vellum sheets has been decorated with a large miniature. The miniature depicts the abbot Joris van Zichelen kneeling next to the body of the deceased monk lying on a woven rug. Behind them the four patron saints of the Saint Bavo’s Abbey are represented. Saint Livinus can be seen on the left side. According to legend he was attacked during one of his sermons and got his tongue ripped out. Because of this he is depicted with pliers holding a tongue. Saint Bavo is sitting next to him holding a staff and a book. The Abbey’s coat of arms is located at his feet. Saint Macharius is located to the right wearing episcopal robes and holding a stone with three nails. According to the legend of Macharius, he was nailed to the ground while holding a hot stone on his chest. The fourth one in the row is Saint Landoaldus, one of the so called Saints of ‘Wintershoven’.

There is much to say about the content of the scroll. It contains valuable information about the dating, the name of the client, a list of religious institutions and the reason of creation. Because the scroll contains all this information it is a remarkable source for research about late medieval piety practices and the cult of the dead (‘dodencultus’) in the monastic communities of the Netherlands. Additionally it provides important information for the historical research pertaining to the Saint Bavo’s Abbey. In short, it truly is a masterpiece.

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