Psalters used to be the richest illuminated manuscripts in the history of book art. The Royal Psalter (Bibliothèque de l‘Arsenal, Ms. 1186), dated 1230 and presumably created for Blanche de Castille, the mother of King Louis the Saint, is no exception in this respect. Rich gold attachments, beautiful ornaments, innovative drolleries, masterly decorated miniatures: Psalters were not only one of the most popular biblical texts of the Middle Ages, but also the most richly illuminated manuscripts of their time – especially with the Royal Psalter, richly decorated with gold, whose brilliant colours bear witness of a great wealth.
A masterpiece of French gothic inspired by the splendid cathedrals of the time
The fantastic pictorial worlds of the Psalter, shining in red, blue and green, are complemented by three-dimensional shimmering gold leaf. The 27 full-page miniatures of the Psalter are composed with raffinesse: the biblical scenes are depicted in medaillons, which are artfully connected to each other. The influence of Gothic architecture on book painting is evident – the decorative composition as well as the colour and the luminosity of the miniatures remind the spectator of the unbelievable windows of French cathedrals.
Radiant miniatures of great virtuosity
The magnificent Royal Psalter, consisting of 192 folios in the format of 28 x 22 cm, is decorated with 27 full-page miniatures, but as well with 24 medaillons in the calendar part – they depict the star signs and symbolic scenes for each month. The detailed Psalms part also contains many richly gilded illuminated initials as well as countless ornaments and drolleries such as small dragons, dogs, birds and other fantastic creatures, which often romp over the text field on the edge of the folios. Precious gold leaf lets almost every folio of the Psalter shine. The illustrations bear witness to the great virtuosity and innovative power of the artists involved. On the basis of stylistic features, the manuscript can clearly be attributed to the Paris school of book illumination.
An enigmatic manuscript
Based on the abundant features of the Royal Psalter and the opulent use of gold, it can be concluded that the Psalter was made for a lady from the nobility. It is not clear whether the Psalter was originally given to Blanche directly, or if it was passed to her. In any case, the psalter was certainly intended for a woman, as stated in a prayer on folio 190r, with the words „miserrimam peccatricem“ („the very poorest sinner“). Said woman, possibly Blanche de Castille, is portrayed on folio 122v in a splendid historiated initial, which shows her praying in front of an altar.
Kept in the Sainte- Chapelle for centuries
The importance of this manuscript can be seen in its history and features. Since 1335 it has been preserved in the treasury of the Sainte-Chapelle and brought to the Bibliothèque de l‘Arsenal only at the end of the 18th century. In order to protect the cover, a ‚chemise‘ made of splendid fabric embroidered with golden fleurs de lys was presumably made on behalf of Charles V. It is one of the few testimonies of Romanesque book binding still preserved today. For the first time, such a “chemise” will also be reproduced in the facsimile. In the 19th century, a case was also created for representative storage. The facsimile edition is also delivered in a fine wooden cassette, which protects the edition together with the “chemise”.
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