26 May 2022
A marvel in gold and ivory: Queen Melisende’s Psalter
Every manuscript in our current Gold Exhibition is a sublime work of art, so it is hard to choose a ‘star of the show’. But surely one of the most fascinating items on display must be the exquisitely-made Psalter of Queen Melisende, a miraculous survival from the war-torn Crusader kingdoms in the 12th century. It is thought to have been the personal prayer book of the enigmatic Queen Melisende, who ruled the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem jointly with her husband Fulk of Anjou from 1131, and then with her son Baldwin until 1152. Some say it was a gift from Fulk to his wife when they were reconciled following a serious rift over power-sharing.
The opening pages consist of 24 miniatures of scenes from the life of Christ and the Virgin Mary with inscriptions in Greek. The artists, working in the monastery of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, were probably westerners, but were strongly influenced by contemporary Byzantine art, as seen in the style of the figures. One of the artists signs himself ‘Basilius’ (Basil) on the last image of the series.
These images are followed by a calendar with the signs of the Zodiac in roundels. The deaths of Melisende’s parents, King Baldwin II of Jerusalem (d. 1131), and Queen Morphia (d. 1 October, 1126/1127), daughter of an Armenian prince, are recorded in the calendar. On first day of October in the calendar are the words, written in gold ink: ‘Obiit E morphia jer[usa]l[e]m regina’ (The death of Morphia queen of Jerusalem).
Next are the Psalms, beginning with the magnificent decorated pages on display in the exhibition (ff. 23v-24r). On the left-hand page, the giant letter ‘B’ for ‘Beatus’ is richly filled with interlace, vines, real and imaginary animals, and the figure of King David playing a harp. The design is drawn in black ink and instead of being coloured, it is entirely illuminated in gold. On the right-hand page, the words of Psalm 1 are written in gold capital letters on purple, with bars of gold between the lines of text and a gold border surrounding the page.
The Canticles, the Our Father and the Creeds are followed by a Litany and prayers to the Virgin, the Trinity and various saints, some of whom are pictured.
Only about the size of a modern paperback, this gold-filled treasure-book was once enclosed in an exquisitely carved binding of two ivory panels embellished with turquoises and garnets. These panels still survive, although they are now separated from the manuscript.
The scenes from the life of David on the upper cover are interspersed with cruel battles between the virtues and vices, accompanied by inscriptions in Latin.
The lower cover is based on the words in the Gospel of Matthew:
‘For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
It shows emperors in different varieties of imperial Byzantine costumes performing acts of mercy. There is a bird labelled ‘Herodius’ (centre top), which is a possible reference to King Fulk, Melisende’s husband, since the biblical herodius was equated to the fulica, or coot, of the Bestiary tradition.
So what do we know of Queen Melisende? She was the eldest daughter and heir of King Baldwin II, and married the rich and powerful Count Fulk of Anjou in 1129. Though he tried to exclude her from the major decisions of the kingdom, she managed to retain the power bequeathed to her by her father and was an important patron of the Church, arts, and books in her kingdom. Later, she quarrelled with her son, Baldwin III, when she refused to hand over power to him entirely. They were later reconciled and Melisende continued to support him until her death in 1161.
William of Tyre, the contemporary historian, wrote this about the queen:
‘she was a very wise woman, fully experienced in almost all affairs of state business, who completely triumphed over the handicap of her sex so that she could take charge of important affairs’.
With its rich use of gold, the Psalter of Queen Melisende is a splendid expression of this incredible queen’s power.
Our Gold exhibition is open from Friday 20 May - Sunday 2 October 2022. You can read more about the exhibition in our previous blogpost and you can book tickets online now. An accompanying book Gold: Spectacular Manuscripts from Around the World is available from the British Library shop.
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The exhibition is supported by the Goldhammer Foundation and the American Trust for the British Library, with thanks to The John S Cohen Foundation, The Finnis Scott Foundation, the Owen Family Trust and all supporters who wish to remain anonymous.