The Utrecht Psalter on loan to Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms
At the end of the British Library's landmark Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition are three incredible and interrelated works of art. The earliest — and the one that sparked an artistic revolution — is the Utrecht Psalter, made in Reims (now northern France) during the reign of Louis the Pious (814–840). We are extremely grateful to Utrecht University Library for its generous loan of this beautiful manuscript to our exhibition.
Psalm 14 from the Utrecht Psalter: Utrecht, Universiteitsbibliotheek, MS 32, f. 8r
The drawings in the Utrecht Psalter are revolutionary in their approach to illustrating the Psalms. Previously, the Psalms were sometimes ornamented with scenes from the life of King David, either on a few pages or painted inside initials, as in the Vespasian Psalter, made in Kent in the 8th century.
Detail of an historiated initial showing King David saving a sheep from a lion: Cotton MS Vespasian A I, f. 53r
By contrast, the Utrecht Psalter’s ink drawings illustrate every phrase from the text of the Psalm on a given page. Check out the annotated version produced by Utrecht University to see how each element in the drawing was inspired by a different line in the text. In addition to literally representing the Psalms, these drawings offer visual interpretation and commentary.
‘Save me from the lion's mouth: for thou hast heard me from the horns of the unicorns’, as depicted in the Utrecht Psalter: Utrecht, Universiteitsbibliotheek, MS 32, f. 12r
The Utrecht Psalter was hugely influential for the style of its drawings. This manuscript was one of many books that travelled between the Continent and the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. By AD 1000 it had arrived in Canterbury where a direct copy of it was made, now known as the Harley Psalter, and also currently on display next to the Utrecht Psalter.
‘Save me from the lion's mouth: for thou hast heard me from the horns of the unicorns’, as depicted in the Harley Psalter: Harley MS 603, f. 12r
The vivid style of line-drawings in the Utrecht Psalter had a huge impact on early English art beyond the immediate copies of the Psalter. Many manuscripts associated with Canterbury, from calendars to canon tables to archbishops’ handbooks, contain lively drawings that show its influence. Drawing was considered a high-status art form on a par with painting in late 10th- and 11th-century England, and some images mix both styles.
Psalm 14 from the Harley Psalter: Harley MS 603, f. 8r
The Utrecht Psalter continued to inspire art at Canterbury after the Norman Conquest. One of these later copies was the 12th-century Eadwine Psalter (Cambridge, Trinity College, R.17.1), which is also displayed alongside the Utrecht and Harley Psalters in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition.
The Eadwine Psalter: Cambridge, Trinity College, R.17.1, f. 24r
The three Psalters ultimately ended up in different collections. The Harley Psalter was acquired by the earls of Mortimer and Oxford and became part of the Harley collection. The Eadwine Psalter was sent to Cambridge and is now in the Wren Library in Trinity College. In turn, the Utrecht Psalter came into the possession of Sir Robert Cotton (1571–1631), a noted collector of manuscripts. At the back of the volume, Cotton added some leaves from an 8th-century gospel-book, which seems to have been made at Wearmouth-Jarrow, Bede’s monastery. At some stage, the oldest surviving charter from England was also part of the volume, but it was subsequently removed and is now Cotton MS Augustus II 2.
Cotton loaned the Utrecht Psalter on at least two occasions. James Ussher, archbishop of Armagh (1581–1656), probably borrowed this manuscript around 1625 and described it in his notebook. Later, Thomas Howard, earl of Arundel (1585–1646), borrowed seven books from Cotton’s library including ‘an auncient coppie of the Psalms. Literis maiusculis, in Latin, and pictures’.
Sir Robert Cotton owned the Utrecht Psalter in the 17th century. In this portrait, commissioned in 1626, he is shown resting his hands upon the Cotton Genesis (courtesy of the Rt. Hon. Lord Clinton, D.L., Heanton Satchville, Devon).
Cotton's collection was used by writers who were looking for political arguments and precedents. In 1629, Charles I ordered that Cotton’s library be closed, on the grounds that it included a tract that advocated for absolutist monarchy, and Cotton himself was briefly imprisoned.
Robert Cotton died soon afterwards, in 1631. Meanwhile, Thomas Arundel seems to have taken the Psalter with him to the continent. There, his family lived rather lavishly, and the possessions of his son William Howard, Viscount Stafford (1612–1680), were auctioned twice to pay off debts. Eventually, Willem de Ridder acquired the Utrecht Psalter, and he bequeathed the manuscript to Utrecht Library on his death in 1716.
We are very grateful to Utrecht University for generously loaning this superstar to the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, so that it can be displayed alongside the Harley Psalter and the Eadwine Psalter. You can book tickets to see it here. The manuscripts discussed in this blogpost are also featured in a catalogue published to accompany the exhibition, available in both hardback and paperback from the British Library shop.
The British Library
19 October 2018–19 February 2019
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