Faksimile Editionen

The Peterborough Psalter

Magnificent Miniatures and Gilded Gothic Script

Brussels, Bibliothèque royale de Belgique, Ms. 9961-62

The Perfection of Gothic Illuminated Book Art

Open the Peterborough Psalter and luxuriate in gold and colours! The diversity of pictures and motifs, and the book’s wealth of ornamentation are overwhelming: 116 miniatures framed in gold, 24 calendar medallions, 10 large (eight- to eleven-line) historiated initials surrounded by decorative scenic borders, smaller initials in gold, line fillers, and stylized foliage decorate this unusual illuminated manuscript. The splendid Burgundian coat-of-arms and the decorative French fleur-de-lys stand out on every miniature page. Even the pages of text written in gold and blue are an ornamental element on their own.


Gold on Every Leaf

The Peterborough Psalter was made around 1300 for Geoffrey of Crowland, the abbot of the powerful Benedictine abbey of Peterborough. The psalms are the basis for the monks’ daily divine offices. All 141 leaves, each one measuring 30 x 19.5 cm, are ornamented in radiant gold, whether in the calligraphy, the initials, or in illustrations. Today the magnificent manuscript is a special treasure kept in the vault at the Royal Library of Belgium in Brussels, under the shelfmark Ms. 9961-62.


A Psalter for Crowned Heads

Rarely can the path of a manuscript be so closely traced as that of the Peterborough Psalter. Its various owners over the course of time must always have been aware that they owned a special treasure in this psalter. The Valois kings had their emblem, the golden fleur-de-lys, added to the coloured backgrounds of the miniatures on every page. When the manuscript passed into the hands of the powerful Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, he had his own coat-of-arms conspicuously painted in gold and silver on every miniature page. Napoleon also staked an obvious claim to the manuscript: his court bookbinder made the gold-embossed, Empire style binding featuring the imperial emblems, which protects the manuscript to this day.


Unique Iconography

The Peterborough Psalter is the only psalter to organize pictures of scenes from the Old and New Testaments according to a typological order, not in separate sequences of illuminations. This means that each scene from the New Testament is assigned to two to four scenes from the Old Testament. In the Peterborough Psalter 85 scenes from the Old Testament, distributed across 71 miniatures, correspond to 38 illustrations of events from the New Testament.

Some miniatures showing secular scenes seem to be inspired by the courtly romance "Jehan et Blonde " written in 1278 by the Picard author Philippe de Rémi.


The Finest in Gothic Illumination

Figures of elegant, slender proportions tell stories from the Old and New Testaments. The faces are painted in great detail, and their individual expressions radiate vitality and physical presence. The backgrounds are in delicately chased, brilliant gold. They alternate effectively with the original monochromatic grounds, which are literally royally ornamented with the fleur-de-lys. The luminous colours come from precious pigments and make the leaves of the miniature look like stained glass windows. The Burgundian coat-of-arms at the bottom of each miniature page also radiates in gold and silver, blue and red.


Gold and Azurite – Unique two-colour Script

Besides the wealth of pictures, the text, written entirely in two colours, is of particular note. All leaves of text are written in radiant gold and intensely luminous blue. This two-colour text is unique in terms of its length, and even in the Middle Ages it was considered unusual. Precious gold and equally valuable azurite were used to make the ink, so that a fortune would have been spent on the text alone. So it is no wonder that this two-colour process was always identified as a special characteristic of the Peterborough Psalter in the inventories of its various owners.


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The Peterborough Psalter at a glance

Brussels, Bibliothèque royale de Belgique, Ms. 9961-62

Made: approx. 1300
In: London or Norwich
Format: about 30 × 19,5 cm
Extent: 282 pages (141 leaves)
Contents: Psalter
Language: Latin
Artists: Professional secular workshop

Provenance Geoffrey of Crowland, the abbot of Peterborough Abbey, gave the psalter to Pope John XXII around 1318. The pope presented it to Clementia of Hungary, the Queen Dowager of France. Philip VI inherited the manuscript from her estate the year that he was crowned, in 1328. When he founded the first royal French library, located in the Louvre, Charles V included the Peterborough Psalter in the collection, and had all of the illuminated backgrounds decorated with the golden fleur-de-lys. Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, took possession of the magnificent psalter after the 1380s, and had his coat-of-arms painted throughout the manuscript.
It was ultimately inherited by Philip II of Spain, who kept the psalter in the Royal Library he founded in Brussels in 1559. French Revolutionary troops took the manuscript as part of their spoils to Paris in 1794. There, Napoleon requested that it be bound in leather embossed with gold, and it has retained this binding to this day. After Napoleon’s fall the Peterborough Psalter was returned to Brussels in 1816 where it is still kept today.

The Fine Art Facsimile edition of the Peterborough Psalter will be published in winter 2015 by Quaternio Verlag Luzern.