Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Utrecht Psalter

   The Utrecht Psalter is a widely praised manuscript but not a very well known one. It is valued for its illuminations, which are completely different, stylistically, then any manuscript that had come before it. The Psalter was made in 820-830 in Reims or the abbey of Hautivilliers, possibly commissioned by the archbishop Ebbo. It might have been a gift for Charlemagne’s son Louis the Pious, his wife, or his newborn son (who would grow up to be Charles the Bald).  The psalter itself is a songbook from the Old Testament and was used in prayer; psalters at this time were popular among the wealthy.   The manuscript contains Roman iconography and the use of the late Roman capitalis rustica as script, and to specialists, it appears to show that the illustrations are (partly) based on one or more models from the 5th century. The illustrations have Carolingian elements, interests and interpretations alongside of this. Some even suspect political messages in certain illustrations. The manuscript ended up in Canterbury around the year 1000, where it inspired the production of the Harley Psalter (11th century), the Eadwine Psalter (12th century) and the Paris (Anglo-Catalan) psalter (12th century).
   After the Reformation a famous collector Robert Cotton (d. 1631) ended up with the manuscript. He had it rebound, and added twelve leaves of a Gospel from Northumbria made in the early 8th century. It was then stolen from Cotton and ended up in the Netherlands. After this it ended up with Willem de Ridder, a Utrecht citizen, who gave it to the University Library in the Janskerk in 1716. This is the reason that the manuscript ended up being called the Utrecht Psalter. The Psalter is famous today for being one of the first manuscripts to be reproduced fully in photographic facsimile. It was done in 1873 at request of the British government and led to the founding of the London Paleography Society. Since, it has been published four times as a facsimile, the only manuscript to do this.
   Within the manuscript there are 166 pen drawings that accompany the text of each of the 150 psalms and sixteen added biblical hymn texts called canticles. The drawings are not in the style popular at the period the manuscript was created. In fact the drawings are most similar to modern art. It wasn’t one artist who created the illustrations but probably around eight.  The drawings have been compared to the work of the artist Jeroen Bosch, but researchers who have studied the manuscript do not know who, if anyone, inspired the artists. Illustrations in the manuscript show buildings, landscapes and heavens, full of kings, soldiers, angels, saints, sinners, craftsmen, musicians, children or a selection from the animal kingdom. Christ, the psalmist or David often plays central parts. But also Atlas, the mouth of Hell or demons with tridents appears in some scenes.
   Below I have included three illuminations from the manuscript that are interesting and exemplify the artistic style used in the manuscript.

Folio 1v
    The illumination on Folio 1v is across from Folio 2r, which holds the related text. The illustration is meant to visualize the first psalm in the manuscript. The image shows a seated figure reading a book, contemplating Gods law, in the top left. The moon, sun and stars above him are meant to represent that he works day and night. In the top right, opposite the devout man, are sinners holding weapons, there is also a snake, which is usually the animal associated with evil and the devil. In between the ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are the beatus vir (blessed man) standing on running water. Lower in the image there is a tree with more lawless men who are being buffeted by a wind that is personified by a human face. This is showing they cannot stand where God’s law exists. The road coming to a dead end past the lawless men is showing their path leads to hells which is a literally a hole in the ground with flying demons helping them to their doom.
Folio 15b
    Folio 15b illustrates Psalm 27. It shows winged figures with spears that seem to be stabbing at “workers of iniquity”. To the left is a king stands in front of a temple and above this are Christ and his angels. At the bottom of the image there is a great hole in the ground leading to hell and the figures appear to be pushed in by winged figures.
Folio 58r

Detail 1

Detail 2
     One of the more interesting illuminations is Psalm 101 (now 102) Folio 58r. Christ is at the top center and he is surrounded on both sides by begging angels. The psalmist, those who meditate on the text of the psalm, is in the middle. Below this are kings and nobleman paying their respects along with orphans and the poor seeking help. On the left there are angels with hammers and chisels who are God’s servants working with the stones of Zion. Part of the background stands out because it is a classical in nature. It shows a naked reclining woman surrounded by small children. The woman is meant to represent the earth (terra) and the horn (of plenty) she holds in her arms is meant to symbolize fertility. They are the next generation that is mentioned in verse 19. But more interesting then that is in the bottom left towards the center. Right next to a king, to the right of the king specifically, there is a floating face. It doesn’t belong to the scene and is looking in the wrong direction; it is also drawn in the wrong style. It is flaw that either occurred while the manuscript was being made or it happened later.


  1. I think that it is interesting that the Utrecht Psalter has such a large number of images- especially if it was commissioned for royalty. Images were usually used as reference for those that were illiterate. Charlemagne was a huge advocate of educational reform, if it was for his wife or young son maybe the manuscript was meant to supplement his family’s learning? I suppose this is why the manuscript is so heavily illuminated? Anyhow, the drawings are beautiful, as are the different colored inks that allow them to move; a couple of the images in this particular post remind me of illustrations from Where the Wild Things Are. In the last detail with the floating face, I do agree that it was added later, especially if the drawing isn’t in the correct style and is not necessary to the complete image. I am curious to know if it is possible to date the inks on the pages, to tell what portions of the texts were added later on. Perhaps such a technique would be too strenuous for the pages. Another interesting aspect of the Psalter is that it is named after the city where it currently rests. The means of it getting there aren’t exactly venerable, but I can appreciate that it was donated to the Utrecht University, where it could be properly maintained. I sympathize with Robert Cotton for losing this gem.

  2. It interests me how the additions were continuously added because for us the idea of the book or a codex is that it is produced and then that is the final product. This idea copies the same views of script and how in the medieval ages it was constantly evolving and changing. For us now, it is a static object that only hold differentiations betweens languages or someone's bad handwriting. Back then, there were differences between people's lifetimes and separate regions, and this ever evolving codex simply demonstrates their ideas of dynamic education and writing.

  3. I truly enjoy the illustrations that are present in the Utrecht Psalter. As Hannah mentioned, this manuscript is different from other manuscripts coming from this time period. I thought that heavy illustration equaled less value to what was written in the manuscript. However, the illuminations in the Psalter were used for the purpose of education, and thereby, present a new from of illumination. Prior to the Psalter, in my knowledge, illuminations were done for the purpose of uniqueness and beauty. The Psalter is unique and beautiful, but it represents a new age of illumination. I enjoy the artistic style of the illustration of the Old Testament presented next to the text of Psalms. I think it is quite interesting that historians are unable to say who inspired the artist, or perhaps, there was no influence. What if the artist thought illustrations should have a more to do with the text that is being printed than the person for which that text is being written?