The magnificent Peterborough Psalter – Stunning Miniatures and Gilded Gothic Script...

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The Peterborough Psalter is an extravagance in gold and opulent colours! 116 miniatures framed in gold, 24 calendar medallions, 10 large historiated initials surrounded by decorative scenic borders, smaller initials in gold, line fillers, and stylized foliage decorate this unusual illuminated manuscript. The facsimile edition of the Peterborough Psalter—now kept in the Royal Library of Belgium (Brussels) under the shelf mark Ms. 9961-62—will be published in a unique limited, hand-numbered edition of 680.

The list of illustrious owners of the Peterborough Psalter, commissioned by Geoffrey of Crowland, the abbot of Peterborough and presented to Pope John XXII around 1318, is as fascinating as the Psalter is magnificent. Pope John presented it to Clementia of Hungary, the Queen Dowager of France; Philip VI inherited the manuscript when crowned, in 1328; and Charles V included the Peterborough Psalter in the collection donated to the first royal French Library, located in the Louvre. Later Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, took possession of the psalter after 1380s; and it was ultimately inherited by Philip II of Spain, who kept it 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. After Napoleon’s fall the Peterborough Psalter was returned to Brussels in 1816 where it is still kept today at Bibliothèque royale de Belgique.

Its various owners must have been aware that they owned a 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. Later, Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, had his own coat-of-arms conspicuously painted in gold and silver on every miniature page. While Napoleon similarly staked his 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

All 141 leaves, each one measuring 30 x 19.5 cm, are ornamented in radiant gold, whether in the calligraphy, the initials, or in the illustrations The Peterborough Psalter is the only psalter to organize pictures of scenes from the Old and New Testaments according to a typological order. 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 appear 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 proportions tell stories from the Old and New Testaments. The faces are painted in great detail, and their individual expressions radiate vitality. 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 creating a stained glass effect. The Burgundian coat-of-arms at the bottom of each miniature page also radiates in gold and silver, blue and red.

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. Gold and equally valuable azurite were used to make the ink.

On the specially treated, parchment-style paper, the sparkling raised gold lettering lends the facsimile edition even greater vitality. Palpably raised, the gold calligraphy stands out on every leaf of the Peterborough Psalter.

Along with the facsimile, a commentary volume with the art historian Lucy Freeman Sandler (New York University) explaining the cycle of typological images unique to this psalter, exploring the iconography of the miniatures, and describing the characteristics of the various illuminators who worked on the manuscript; while Bernard Bousmanne (Royal Library of Belgium) devotes himself to the leaves with decorated initials and all of the details of the decorative borders. He also traces the provenance of the Peterborough Psalter in the libraries of famous princes.

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