Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Utrecht Psalter

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?


  1. If this post makes one thing clear about the Utrecht Psalter, it is that it is highly valued, not only by its home, Utrecht University, but by scholars worldwide. And this is only backed up further by the fact that it was first digitized onto a CD-ROM in 1996. Even in the early 2000s, many people were still using floppy disks, but the Utrecht Psalter had CD-ROM-level priority. And not only did the digitization include scans of every page, much like we see now on online sources, but it had transcriptions of the original Latin text as well as translations into English, French, and Dutch.

    Since then, the antiquated CD-ROM has been put out of commission, for it is no longer compatible with modern technology, and due to these errors with the digitization, from 2011 to 2013 it could not be found online. It is currently hosted on the Utrecht University website, however there is allegedly a more extensive and scholarly version in the making, one that would include links from the psalm verses to the illustrations. It is interesting how little times have changed: during the production of this book, the most important manuscripts were produced with the highest quality materials and given the best treatment; now they keep ahead of the technological curve by utilizing all the digital methods available.


  2. Psalters were one of the many books that a monastery would have required to be considered operational in the Western Empire under Charlemange, along with a Holy Bible, a Sacramentary which described the holy sacraments of Christianity, a lectionary to aid with sermons, a martyrology that told of the lives of the saints, and a homilary. Psalters were considered indispensable for proper worship, and monasteries could be quite protective of their copies of the books. For example, when Saint Columba made a copy of a psalter that had been loaned to him by Saint Finnian, a battle in which 3,000 men are claimed to have perished was fought over whether Columba had any right to keep the resultant book, which became known as the Cathach of Saint Columba and is nowadays the oldest surviving manuscript in Ireland.

    This clash was the first instance of what we now know as copyright laws, and the overzealous manner in which they are often enforced. Fortunately for the Utrecht psalter's sundry owners there was never a war fought over it, though the book did avoid potential destruction during the English Civil War when it was brought to the Netherlands by the Earl of Arundel, who had been lent the book by the antiquarian Robert Bruce Cotton.

  3. The initial feature of the Utrecht Psalter that stuck me was the how clearly written the words of the manuscript are. The text appears very upright, rounded off and even though there is a lack of spacing in between the words the text does not feel to be cramped while reading it. As Jennifer mentioned, there is a singular use of rustic capitals and red ink, both of which contribute to a very clear and unified manuscript; no doubt due to the emphasis the Carolingians placed upon the uniform nature of their texts to make them easier to read and understand, even for an ignorant NCF hayseed with barely any Latin.
    The second aspect of the manuscript that is, understandably, of great importance are the illustrations of the psalms that are depicted throughout the manuscript. At first glace of the unfocused/zoomed manuscript, the illustrations looked as if they had been carved into the page rather than drawn. After my initial bout of blindness, I took a closer look and saw that the illustrations were, in fact, drawn on. In each psalm depiction the scenes feel very grand and there is a lot of activity in each, in addition to the high amount of detail that is given to each illustration; the wings of the angel and the detailing of the folds of what looks like a togas on various figures in beginning of the manuscript, fol. 1v, stood out in particular. These types of illustrations feel very different from what we have been covering up to this point and the narrative and meaning that they help to bring to life seem much more tangible than a simple (but ornate) depiction of a saint or apostle.

  4. The Utrecht Psalter was particularly one of the most interesting manuscripts that I’ve seen, as the drawings provided are absolutely like nothing else seen around the time. Coming from an art historical perspective, I saw these wispy drawings as a step towards more realistic depictions being produced. When one puts the time frame that this psalter was probably made around 820-830, the true innovation of the drawings is realized. Not only were these drawings innovative, but the artist creating them was creating images, for psalms lack narratives. Also, the fact that multiple artists worked on this psalter, yet every single image looks uniform and in-sync as a whole, is a feat within itself. I would particularly like to bring the attention to the figures themselves. The figures pictured range in size, importance and characteristics. The array of different figures, from all walks of life, shows that versatility that this psalter exhibits. Without a narrative, perhaps more freedom and diversity was trying to be shown. One source describes the figures as “baroque” and “surrealistic”, and I couldn’t agree more. The figures display a sense of emotion, and drama, a characteristic not really shown in other miniatures or drawings at the time The absence of color from the drawings in no way detracts from the images, but instead highlights the mastery of the artist, understanding elements of art unseen by artists before him. The Utrecht Psalter is a prime example of the innovative nature of these artists, especially in the time period it was produced in.


  5. The Utrect Psalter was indeed highly valued. So much that another book, the Harley Psalter, was begun with the intentions to produce an exact copy of the illustrations and layout of the Utrecht Psalter, but with the psalms written in Roman form instead of Gallic.
    The thing about this book that I find most interesting is what the drawings depict. In other books, if drawings depicted a psalm, the artist only chose one major point of the psalm to illustrate. The Utrecht Psalter, however, has a drawing for each psalm that combines multiple moments of the psalm instead of just one. This idea of combining moments was, in my opinion, a brilliant idea for this book. The art also seems to be intended to have an "ancient" look to it. This art, as Abigail mentioned in an earlier post, does seem to have a "baroque" feel to it. What I wonder is why the artist chose to use one main color for the illustrations. This is the first book that I have studied that is very important, yet lacks all of the colors that embellish most other important manuscripts.