The Utrecht Psalter is named for its place of current residence at Utrecht University in the Netherlands rather than the place it was made. It is believed to have started its journey in Reims (France) or nearby at Hautvilliers abbey, around 820-830 possibly for Charlemagne's wife or one of his sons. It then went on a long journey to end up in Utrecht and was given over to the university in 1716 and is today the “pride” of Utrecht University's Library and is the most famous in any Dutch collection. Its Carolingian origins are noticeable in the organization of the text. While it does not use the hierarchy of text that Carolingian writing became known for and the except for several pages at the end it is written solely in rustic capitols, it does use the red ink to signify the start of sentences and different Psalms. The organization of the writing is extremely clear and the letters themselves are clean and beautiful throughout the entire book, even in the part that changes the script to uncial, and must have been done by an experienced scribe.
The book begins with a full page drawing or sketch done in brown walnut ink and the text itself starts off with a beautifully illuminated letter. And we can see the gold leafing has rubbed against the other page and left an imprint of it on the drawing. This is the only letter illuminated in such detail, although there are other letters that have gold leaf. The sparing use of gold leaf or color in the manuscript is intriguing as it was supposedly commissioned for royalty, and in comparison to other books made for Charlemagne's family (like The Godescalc Evangelistary) it may seem rather plain in comparison. The thing that really makes the Utrecht Psalter so unique and intriguing is not only its long journey but also its unusual style. Throughout the book there are more drawings/sketches that illustrate the psalms. This manuscript is essentially a Medieval picture book. The drawings differ from the standard of the time as they are uncolored and resemble sketches. It is these drawings that makes the Utrecht Psalter a masterpiece.
While the Utrecht Psatler is done in the Reims style with Carolingian influence it is also very innovative for its time with the combined elements of text and drawing. These sketches differ not only in style but also composition than other images in manuscripts of the time. There is a lack of formal quality to them not only because of their lack of paint but also in the composition themselves. The style of the images resembles Hieronymus Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights, a painting done centuries later in the Netherlands, rather than anything else we have seen that is contemporary to it, such as The Godescalc Evangelistary, which was also commissioned for Charlemagne's family (more specifically, his wife). The images in the Utrecht Psalter lack the Roman and Byzantine formality (although they do use Roman iconography) and in comparison are more of brown wisps dancing across the pages that bring to life the story in the psalms. These drawings depict a great array of subjects in a way that resembles paintings rather than manuscript illustrations, and is extremely innovative for its time. This psalter would influence many psalters for centuries—an amazing feat for a manuscript. And it is possible that its drawings influenced more than just manuscripts, like the painting by Bosch I mentioned earlier, which many others have also seen the similarity between the two.
Psalms are not by nature very narrative and so to bring them to life in such a way as has been done here must have taken great amounts of imagination as well as an immense intellectual program. Some believe that there are also political messages in some of the illustrations, although it is hard to prove motive behind the illustrations without knowing who drew them and/or who designed them in the first place. In many Medieval and Renaissance paintings it was not the artist who decided what would go into the painting but someone else who would come up with the program, and since we do not even know who made this manuscript it is hard to say whether the artists and designer are one and the same or not. It is relatively certain that it was not one single artist but at least eight different artists who illustrated the book, which makes sense given the sheer amount of drawings. Between the large amount of drawings and the length of the book itself it must have taken a long time to create.
It is also interesting how the visual and the textual were chosen to be combined in this way where usually the visual was used more for decoration or for illiterate people, but the fact that it is in a book makes it very exclusive for someone who was educated and fully literate. If we run with the theory that the book was commissioned for Charlemagne's newborn son it could in some way be a Medieval picture book that young Charles would read as a child. While this manuscript was commissioned for royalty it would also have fascinated even illiterate commoners with its drawings. This gives it a unique versatility that is part of what makes it so original and also what makes it so interesting to study. What were the real intentions behind the program of this book?