Medieval manuscripts blog

Bringing our medieval manuscripts to life

18 July 2022

The golden splendour of the Queen Mary Psalter

Our Gold exhibition includes some of the most justly famous illuminated manuscripts in the Library. One of these, the Queen Mary Psalter, is one of the most extensively illustrated biblical manuscripts ever produced, containing over 1000 images. Extraordinarily, all of the Psalter’s illustrations were completed by the same person, an artist who is now known as the ‘Queen Mary Master’ after this book.

Illuminated figures against a gold incised background
Detail of figures with gold-decorated backgrounds, from the Queen Mary Psalter: Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 68r

The Psalter was created in England, probably in London or East Anglia, between 1310 and 1320. We don’t know for whom it was originally created, as there are no contemporary ownership inscriptions or other clues such as coats of arms that would identify the original patron. Nevertheless, the magnitude and quality of its illustrations are certainly grand enough to have been for a royal or aristocratic owner. The manuscript later belonged to Queen Mary I (r. 1553–58), from whom it takes its name. It was presented to her in 1553 by a customs officer, Baldwin Smith, who had prevented its export from England.

You can hear Kathleen Doyle, Lead Curator of Illuminated Manuscripts, talking about the Queen Mary Psalter in the Gold Exhibition Virtual Private View which is available to watch on the British Library Player (starting at 10:28):

For the Gold exhibition, we exhibit an opening which forms a sort of diptych of the Tree of Jesse and the Holy Kinship, placed together after a blank recto to form a coordinated pairing. Together they provide a commentary on the ancestry and family of Christ. 

An opening from the Queen Mary Psalter, with fine miniatures in colours and gold
The Tree of Jesse and the Holy Kinship, from the Queen Mary Psalter: Royal MS 2 B VII, ff. 67v-68r

The Tree of Jesse on the left begins at the bottom with the recumbent Jesse, the ancestor of David. A large branch growing out of his torso curves around forming roundels in which his crowned descendants are seated on branches in the central and to either side of the middle king. Four figures with round hats stand laterally above and below the kings, perhaps the four major prophets. The only descendant who is identifiable by an attribute is David, who is playing his harp, directly above Jesse.

Miniature of the Tree of Jesse, showing Jesse lying at the bottom with a tree growing from his body, and figures in roundels within the tree
The Tree of Jesse, from the Queen Mary Psalter: Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 67v

The iconography of the Jesse Tree is derived from Isaiah’s prophecy that ‘there shall come forth a rod out of the root of Jesse, and a flower shall rise up out of his root’ (egredietur virga de radice Iesse et flos de radice eius ascendet, Isaiah 11:1), in which the virga or rod is interpreted as a reference to the virgo, or Virgin. However, in this instance the Virgin is not included at the top of the tree, as is usual, but rather she is featured on the opposite page with a more unusual Psalter subject, the Holy Kinship.

Miniature of the Holy Kinship, with four levels each with a row of figures
The Holy Kinship, from the Queen Mary Psalter: Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 68r

The depiction of the Holy Kinship on the right is shown in registers that are aligned with the levels of Jesse and the kings in circular branches in the Tree of Jesse. At the bottom is St Anne, by tradition the mother of the Virgin, with each of her three husbands, Joachim, Cleophas and Salome. These couples are not identified by a label or caption, but their identities are clear from the figures in the register above them, namely their respective daughters, all called Mary. In this second register the three Marian half-sisters appear with their respective husbands. They are each labelled with their names written beneath them (rather helpfully, as Mary I, Mary II and Mary III).

In the next register the Virgin (labelled Maria Virgo) holds the Christ Child, next to St James the Less, in the centre, one of the sons of Mary Cleophas (II), and with St James the Great, to the right, the son of Mary Salome (III). In the top register Christ appears on his own to the left, here in Majesty, holding a globe of the world, next to the other two sons of Mary Cleophas who became apostles (Sts Simon and Jude), and St John the Evangelist, the other son of Mary Salome to the right.

Illuminated figure against a gold and blue chequerboard background
Detail of figures with gold-decorated backgrounds, from the Queen Mary Psalter: Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 68r

Throughout, the figures are set on a glimmering gold backgrounds, on the right, with incised with intricate patterns, or alternating with coloured diamonds or squares.

For more on the textual basis for and other manuscript examples, see our previous blogpost on the Holy Kinship. To see this interesting pairing in person you can book tickets to the Gold exhibition. An accompanying book Gold: Spectacular Manuscripts from Around the World is available from the British Library shop.

Kathleen Doyle
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Supported by:

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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.

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