Images like songs
It is as if the artists of the St. Alban’s Psalter, both scribe and painter alike, had music still ringing in their ears when they executed the Psalms from 1123 to 1135 in an incredibly lavish luxury manuscript.
The outstanding miniatures and painted initials of the book form such an expressive and lively coloured decoration that one can imagine them moving to the rhythm of music: a fantastic picture gallery from the heyday of English book illumination.
The English variant of the Romanesque period is frequently considered as the most interesting period of Insular illumination. It was a period of transition and experimentation. The successful marriage of Byzantian and Ottonian influences with Anglo-Saxon elements produced a new, dramatic and expressive style in its own right.
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.
The Chanson of Alexius is among the earliest surviving texts of Old French Literature. It was written even before the Chanson de Roland and was added to the volume because of the similarity with the biography of the recipient of the sumptuous Psalter.
46 lavishly painted pages
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 paint- ing, and by elegant, extremely elongated figures that are mostly shown in profile. The artist shaped the tender bodies using a complex system of deep colour shades and lines of light derived from Byzantine models. The backgrounds are composed of blocks of colour and include complicated architectural elements. His work is clearly influenced by Ottonian art. Blue, green and purple dominate each single composition of the English picture cycle. All mini- atures 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 large-size historiated initials, the picture and the letter itself fuse into a new design. The artists – the initials are presumably the work of three different hands – coherently keep to one and the same creative model: 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 milestone 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.
Thanks to the facsimile edition presented here for the first time, the manuscript from the Hildesheim Dombibliothek in the St. Godehard basilica and the singleton from the same volume, now preserved in the Schnütgen Museum, are brought together in a single work.