The St. Alban’s Psalter
Images like songs
The most popular text of the Middle Ages
During the Middle Ages, the Psalms belonged to the most widely known and most popular texts of Biblical literature, both in the private and in the ecclesiastical realms. They were recited daily by both clerics and the laity and even used in textbooks, for teaching children to read and write.
In addition to the 150 Latin Psalms (Gallican version), the calendar at the beginning and the litany and prayers at the end of the book, the St. Alban’s Psalter includes two further quite unusual texts: the Life of St. Alexius and a letter of Pope Gregory the Great in which he defends the variety of images as a teaching aid.
A de luxe manuscript intended for a lady
The manuscript was presumably commissioned by Geoffrey de Gorham, abbot of St. Alban’s, for Christina of Markyate, a close friend of his, to be executed by the scriptorium of St. Alban’s abbey near London.
Christina hailed from a wealthy Anglo-Saxon family and decided at a very early stage to dedicate her life to God – she fled from an arranged marriage and withdrew to a hermitage near Markyate. There she got to know Geoffrey who became her mentor and friend – a very special relationship to which we owe this unique Psalter manuscript.
46 lavishly painted pages and 214 vividly coloured historiated initials
The impressive picture cycle was created by the main artist of the Psalter, the “Alexius Master”. This tremendously rich sequence of scenes introducing the book is distinguished by strong body colour painting, and by elegant, extremely elongated figures that are mostly shown in profile. All miniatures are set in a golden frame, which is in turn filled with opulent meandering bands of a sheer incredible variety.
The illustrations are the oldest surviving examples of book painting from the English Romanesque period. The narrative style of the pictures and the depictions in profile suggest that the artist had religious drama in mind. All 46 miniature pages bear testimony to a successful iconographic symbiosis of Anglo-Saxon, Ottonian and Byzantine art, combined with a creative urge for independent artistic expression.
In the execution of the 214 large-size historiated initials, the picture and the letter itself fuse into a new design. All Psalms are introduced by historiated initials, as are the ensuing chants, credos, litanies, and prayers. The combination of image and text displays an incredible creative power, making it even possible to illustrate the hidden message. The themes of the Psalms and of the ensuing texts are anticipated by small rubricated headings, frequently indicated by one of the initial figures in a gesture of demonstration.
A mileston in the history of
The St. Alban’s Psalter is among the most significant and richly decorated Psalter manuscripts and one of the finest volumes of English book illumination.
Both the dramatic expressiveness of the full-page miniatures and the powerful historiated initials, predominantly in half- or full-page format, indicate the beginning of a fascinating new artistic form of expression, which was marked by the sound of the Psalms.