Medieval manuscripts blog

Bringing our medieval manuscripts to life

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.

An illuminated page from the Melisende Psalter, photographed at an angle to show the light glancing off the gold
Page on display in GOLD: Initial 'B'(eatus) of King David playing the harp, in The Psalter of Queen Melisende (Jerusalem, 1131–1143) Egerton MS 1139, f. 23v

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.

A child on an altar with two women and two men in robes. A dome behind.
The Presentation of Christ in the Temple, Egerton MS 1139, f. 3r

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).

Text page with gold writing and a roundel with a scorpion8r
Calendar page for October with a roundel containing the symbol of Scorpio, and the death of Queen Morphia (line 4), Egerton MS 1139 f. 18r

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.

Gold panels with a letter B containing a king playing a harp; facing page has text in gold on red.
Pages on display in GOLD: Spectacular manuscripts from around the World: Initial 'B'(eatus) of King David playing the harp opposite a panel with display capitals containing the beginning of Psalm 1, in The Psalter of Queen Melisende (Jerusalem, 1131 – 1143) Egerton MS 1139, f. 23v-24r

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.

A Female figure in a hooded red cloak and blue robe with her hands raised; patterned panels on either side
St Agnes at the beginning of a prayer for her to intercede with God, Egerton MS 1139, f. 211r

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.

Ivory panel with 6 scenes of David in roundels, including of him fighting animals, facing Goliath and playing the harp and scenes of battles between, and birds and foliage in the frame.
The Melisende Psalter, Upper cover with scenes from the life of David: Egerton MS 1139/1

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.

6 roundels with scenes of crowned figures performing deeds of mercy, with mythical beasts fighting in between.
The Melisende Psalter, lower cover with the six Corporal Works of Mercy: Egerton MS 1139/1

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.

A crowned man and a woman in gold cloaks joining hands before a bishop in a palace interior with a crowd of courtiers watching, one with a sword and a bird of prey.
The wedding of Fulk and Melisende in William of Tyre, Histoire d'Outremer (Historia rerum in partibus transmarinis gestarum in French), Royal MS 15 E I, f. 224v

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.

Chantry Westwell

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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.