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.