Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Clm 835
The opulence of an illustrated bible: 236 scenes from the Old and New Testaments on a luminous gold background
The Bavarian State Library is home to the Munich Golden Psalter, a prayer book featuring an extraordinary wealth of illustrations, even in comparison to other beautiful psalters. Measuring approximately 28 × 19.5 cm, the 166-folio psalter contains an unrivalled wealth of illustrations: 91 full-page miniatures on a brilliant gold background. Unique, elaborately detailed cycles depict stories from the Old and New Testaments, making this psalter a true illustrated bible. The calendar at the beginning is decorated with 24 medallion miniatures. Decorative initials, both historiated and inhabited, in colour and gold leaf, as well as line fillers in red and blue on all of the pages, complete the impression of opulence.
The Munich Golden Psalter is probably an early 13th-century collaborative work by three masters from Oxford. It is not merely its lavish content, however, that makes the psalter so fascinating; the manuscript is also an example of what was then a new form of artistic expression, a transition from the Romanesque to the Gothic.
The Psalter: a prayer book for private devotions and a medieval “best-seller”
Toward the end of the twelfth century, the educated upper classes began requesting books for private devotions. Due to the readily comprehensible amount of text in a psalter, and because it was used everyday in matins and vespers, the collection of 150 psalms—prayers and songs—quickly acquired popularity. During this period, it seemed as if psalters appeared almost overnight everywhere in England and northern France. The preeminence of the psalter did not diminish until the fourteenth century, when Books of Hours came into vogue.
Almost half of the 150 psalms are ascribed to King David (around 1000 BC). They do not, however, progress narratively. Rather, they are more like appeals to God, employing a strongly metaphorical vocabulary to express universal themes such as the glorification of God, thankfulness, entreaty, lamentation, and repentance. Today, the psalms are still part of the liturgy in all Christian denominations and the Jewish synagogue.
Unusual illustrated cycles: from the Creation to Judgement Day
The most striking feature of the Munich Golden Psalter has got to be its unusually detailed, thickly interwoven cycle of miniatures of Old and New Testament themes. Unlike other psalters, the series of miniatures are not concentrated at the beginning of the manuscript, but rather, are evenly distributed among the leaves of text ornamented with initials.
Adjoining the calendar are 27 pages containing full-page miniatures of Genesis, the story of Joseph, the flight from Egypt, and the fall of Jericho. The New Testament cycle features 19 pictures from the life of Jesus, in the traditional order of Annunciation, birth, flight, entry into Jerusalem, the Passion, the crucifixion, resurrection, and Pentecost, finishing off with Judgement Day and a depiction of the damned.
After Psalm 51 is a second sequence on the New Testament: 16 pages illustrating the various miracles performed by Jesus. After more psalms, there are 16 full-page miniatures of scenes from the Old Testament books of Ruth, Judith, and Esther, as well as several more pages of scenes from the life of David. Five miniatures, in which the peoples of the Earth and all of creation sing the praises of God, are direct illustrations of the last three psalms. A full-page portrait of King David and his harp, along with other scenes from his life, end the last cycle.
Inhabited and historiated initials comprise many different gold leaf decorations
The first psalm is introduced by a splendid, major golden initial. Additionally, there are ten decorated initials, each one almost half-a-page in size, made of sweeping, interwoven, multi-coloured or gold bands—along with the occasional elongated dragon—and foliate decorations. The rest of the incipit words are written in gold leaf on a coloured background. Around 180 initials, some historiated, others decorative, help to structure the psalms and other prayers, and the imaginativeness of the designs seems to be unlimited.
On the threshold between the Romanesque and the Gothic periods: new forms of artistic expression
In English manuscript illumination, works produced during the period between 1180 and 1220 are classified as Transitional Style. As the Romanesque era came to an end, artists were looking for new forms of expression, but these innovations could not yet be termed early Gothic. Rather, today’s reader of the Munich Golden Psalter is actually witnessing an exciting moment of transition from one epoch to the next: everything is in motion, the style of art itself is changing, and with every miniature, something new is being attempted.
Greater simplicity and resemblance to nature: new ways of depicting figures
The move away from Romanesque formulas first occurred in the depiction of figures. A sense of calm came to the strong expressions of the compositions. Although knowledge of how to precisely depict the human body was admittedly still limited, artists were trying to lend their figures a certain substance, to consider proportions without exaggerating poses or gestures. In their search for more naturalness in the folds of fabrics and flowing robes, shadowing became more painterly and was subtly gradated from one colour to the next. Great care was taken in modelling faces. Altogether, artists managed to come closer to reality in their portrayal of the human figure.
Copyright © 2010 Quaternio Verlag Luzern. All rights reserved.
Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek,
|Format:||ca. 28 × 19.5 cm
|Extent:||332 pages (166 leaves)|
|Artist:||Three masters of a workshop in Oxford
Patron: unknown; probably a high-ranking laywoman
Provenance: It is unclear when the psalter left England, but it was probably before Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries (after 1538). The ex libris inscription of Maximilian I, Duke of Bavaria (1573–1651), is evidence that it was part of the inventory at the Munich Hofbibliothek, or court library.
The fine art facsimile edition of the Munich Golden Psalter has been published in 2011 by Quaternio Verlag Luzern and is in stock.