Faksimile Editionen

The Breslau Psalter

The Most Beautiful Manuscript of the Fitzwilliam Museum

Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum, MS 36-1950

The most imposing and exceptionally sumptuous illumination of the Breslau Psalter delights the viewer. Sparkling gold burnished to a high shine, brilliant colours, and an impressive variety of motifs are displayed on every page. The manuscript stands out for its precious book illumination and the obvious relish for pictorial narrative of the artists involved. Discover an entirely fresh, varied and exhilarating medieval imagery melding various influences and traditions of European book illumination into a harmonious whole. A unique pictorial programme illustrates 150 Psalms and the Canticles (‘songs’) from the Old Testament, leaving much scope for playful creativity. Throughout the volume the borders framing the pages are populated with small hybrids and magical creatures, beasts, birds, huntsmen, musicians and acrobats. Marvel at the wondrous wealth of this magnificent psalter!

 

A European Work of Art

Produced at the ducal court of Silesia at about 1265, the Breslau Psalter exemplifies the movement of medieval artists and the cultural exchange between East and West, North and South. The text was written by German scribes. An Italian book illuminator from Padua, the Master of Giovanni da Gaibana, has been identified as the main painter who gave this splendidly shimmering psalter its characteristic Italian-Byzantine appearance. An entire team of local Silesian book illuminators completed the manuscript, following the master’s design. He created an imagery combining sparkling gold grounds and Oriental cupolas with an Occidental repertoire of visual forms. It includes interlace ornaments inspired by insular art as well as fleuronné pen work from French book illumination.

 

A Miniature for Each Psalm

In the Breslau Psalter, each of the 150 Psalms and all Canticles from the Old Testament are illustrated. The text pages are embellished by a total of 168 small miniatures on a gold ground in the margins, sometimes up to three on a page. While being inspired by the content of the various Psalms, the favourite subject of the miniatures is King David who in the Middle Ages was considered the author of the Psalms. The pictorial programme of the manuscript, which is without precedent, might have been designed by a highly educated theologian, possibly the Court Chaplain in Breslau. Obviously he carefully considered in each case which verse would be best suited to illustrate the message of that particular Psalm. The book illuminators then followed his instructions with brilliant artistry.

 

A Showpiece at the Ducal Court

In the Middle Ages, the Silesian dukes on certain occasions presented the Breslau Psalter to their guests at court, to impress them with its splendour and the wealth of miniatures and gold. The lavish illumination, the emphasis on Bohemian saints in the calendar, and the female wording of the prayers suggest Anna of Bohemia (1204-1268) as the courtly commissioner. She was the widow of Henry II, Duke of Silesia. Her son Henry III, together with his younger brother Wladislaw, governed the Duchy of Silesia-Breslau from 1248. Wladislaw studied at the University of Padua. He probably brought the Italian Gaibana Master with him, when he returned to become Archbishop of Salzburg in 1265.

 

Emotions Drawn from Life

The book illuminators of the Breslau Psalter place the figures in the miniatures and in the imaginative architectural borders on a gold ground symbolising the divine sphere. In contrast to the distant attitude often seen in Byzantine influenced book illumination, some figures are highly individualized showing smoothly modelled facial features, almost portrait-like in appearance. In fact, their facial expression and their posture clearly reflect discernible emotions. In miniatures where the artists needed to render mourning or dismay, they emphasised empathy and compassion, thereby expressing profound aspects of human nature with a heightened emotionality.

 

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The Breslau Psalter

The Breslau Psalter

The Breslau Psalter

The Breslau Psalter

The Breslau Psalter