Ms 32, fol. 59v

Utrecht Psalter

Ms. 32

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Rheims, Benedictine abbey of Hautvillers, c. 820-835.
Vellum, 92 leaves, 330x255 mm, written space 244x222 mm, 3 columns, 32 lines. Written in a capitalis rustica (text), an uncialis (captions of the Psalms and the initials of the individual verses) and a capitalis quadrata (initials of the first Psalm verses). Latin.
Bound with Fragments of an Evangeliary. Double monastery of Wearmouth and Jarrow, c. 690-720. Vellum, 12 leaves, 330x255 mm, written space mostly 243x195 mm, 2 columns, 27-30 lines. Written in an uncialis. Latin.
Illustration 166 pen drawings, preceding each of the 150 psalms and 16 canticles.
Binding Binding from the early seventeenth century of red morocco over pasteboard, gilt on covers and spine. In the centre of each cover the coat of arms of Robert Cotton. Restored in 1977.
Provenance Taken across to England in the year 1000 and kept in Christ Church, Canterbury. In the possession of Robert Cotton (1571-1631), who lent the manuscript to Thomas Howard, Duke of Arundel (1585-1646). Probably returned to the Netherlands in 1642 by the latter and sold by his widow or son, who were both resident in the Netherlands. Bequeathed to the University Library by Willem de Ridder (1652-1716)

The Utrecht Psalter is undoubtedly one of the great masterpieces of Western medieval art. It is almost certainly the most important book kept in the Netherlands and unquestionably the showpiece of Utrecht University Library. The name of the manuscript derives from the present depository rather than from its place of origin. It is what is known as a Psalter or Psalterium, that is, a manuscript which contains the text of the Book of Psalms

The 166 pen drawings which precede the text of each of the 150 psalms and sixteen canticles must have made the same overwhelming impression on its ninth-century contemporaries as it does on us today. The psalm texts, which were already very important to early Christian communities and which, in the centuries following, were instrumental in shaping religious and devotional life, were suddenly brought to life in this manuscript in a manner totally unknown until then. The images evoked by the psalm verses, for centuries learned by rote and recited, were transformed here by a completely new style, which found its inspiration in design principles of the late classical age and early Christianity.

This new style had evolved in a group of manuscripts produced at Charlemagne's court at Aachen in the ninth century. However, the style did not come to full fruition until two or three decades later in another important centre of Carolingian culture and Renovatio: Rheims, where Ebbo, the foster brother of the new emperor, Charlemagne's son Louis the Pious, had occupied the See as archbishop since 816. One of the books commissioned by Ebbo was the Ebbo Gospels (now Epernay, Bibliothèque Municipale, Ms. 1), created in the Benedictine abbey of Hautvillers at Epernay. The portraits of the Evangelists in the Ebbo Gospels show such a close affinity with the drawings in the Utrecht Psalter that the latter, too, must have been made in Hautvillers, between circa 820 and 835. The Utrechts Psalter is generally regarded as the most important manuscript from the hey-day of the so-called School of Rheims.

Each of the 150 psalms and sixteen canticles in the Utrecht Psalter is preceded by a spectacular and dynamic pen drawing that brings the contents to life in a manner astonishing even to modern eyes. Not being narrative in nature, the psalms are difficult to illustrate. How were artists to depict the psalmist's cries for help and deliverance from his enemies, or his meditations, his prayers, eulogies and lamentations? One solution was to illustrate the concrete images that are evoked by means of isolated verses or words in the psalm texts. This concrete and literal kind of visualisation of the texts is found in a number of post-iconoclastic Byzantine psalters with marginal illustrations of the second half of the ninth century. The same type of illustration also played an important role in some early Western psalters, such as the famous Stuttgart Psalter. However, it is in the still somewhat earlier Utrecht Psalter that this type of illumination reached its apogee. The artists of the Utrecht Psalter succeeded in fully depicting those elements in the psalm texts that allowed and evoked literal illustration. They combined these depictions in carefully structured drawings, covering the full width of the page above each psalm.

The Latin text of the psalms in the Utrecht Psalter is in the so-called Gallican version, the text of the Vulgate. Because of the method of illustration in the Utrecht Psalter, in which text and image are closely interwoven, the drawings cannot be understood without taking the text of the psalm as the starting-point. Not only for art-historians and medievalists but also for the general public it is fascinating to discover, almost step by step and without the aid of intricate scholarly commentaries, how the artists of the Utrecht Psalter picture one of the key texts of the Middle Ages.

In the drawing for Psalm 104 displayed here, for example, Christ-Logos stands on the winged heads of the personified winds as a depiction of verse 3: 'who walkest upon the wings of the winds.' On the left, verses 10-11 are depicted: 'Thou sendest forth springs in the vales: between the midst of the hills the waters shall pass. All the beasts of the field shall shrink: the wild asses shall expect in their thirst.' Two wild asses are loudly braying out their desires, with above them the birds of verse 12, one of which flaps its wings and opens its beak to make its presence clearly heard: 'Over them the birds of the air shall dwell: from the midst of the rocks they shall give forth their voices.' From the left a ploughman approaches with a yoke of oxen, illustrating verse 14: 'that thou mayst bring bread out of the earth'. He is approaching a laid table with bread and wine, according to verse 15: 'and that wine may cheer the heart of man. That he may make the face cheerful with oil; and that bread may strengthen man's heart.' A servant is anointing the head of the table companion in the middle. To the right below two lions are devouring their prey; verse 21: 'The young lions roaring after their prey, and seeking their meat from God'. In the bottom right-hand corner they have retreated to their lair; verse 22: 'and they shall lie down in their dens'. The lower part of the drawing depicts the sea from verses 25-26: 'So is this great sea, which stretcheth wide its arms: there are creeping things without number: creatures little and great. There the ships shall go. This sea-dragon which thou hast formed to play therein.'

This literal depiction of the psalm verses is rooted in the late classical picture tradition. In all probability a fifth- or sixth-century illuminated Psalter served as a starting point for the Hautvillers artists. The use of classical script – the capitalis rustica – for the psalm text and the fact that the text is spread over three columns point in that direction. Thanks to the completeness of the picture cycle and the enthusiasm and liveliness expressed in each of the pictures, the Utrecht Psalter is a rare witness to the Carolingian custom of taking its example from classical traditions, but adapting them to ninth-century reality. That the manuscript was assessed at its true value is clear from its influence on art in general, and book illumination in particular, in the centuries that followed. In this connection, there are important stylistic and iconographic similarities with a number of later Carolingian manuscripts and ivory carvings from the vicinity of Metz and the 'Court School' of Charles the Bald. These similarities make it probable that the Utrecht Psalter was located in or near Metz in the third quarter of the ninth century, perhaps even at the court of Charles the Bald himself.

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