52 Weeks of Inspiring Illustrations, Week 52: the St Andrews Psalter

speccoll
Monday 15 July 2013
Leaves 72v-73r of the “St Andrews Psalter” (St Andrews msBX2033.A00), with full border decorations and illuminations
Leaves 72v-73r of the “St Andrews Psalter” (St Andrews msBX2033.A00), depicting a dragon within an illuminated initials with full border decorations and illuminations

For the final inspiring illustration of this 52-week series, it could be argued that we have saved the best for the last. This is a book of Psalms (with a liturgical calendar of Sarum (or Salisbury) use), which was written in England, probably near London, in the mid-15th century (St Andrews msBX2033.A00). It would have been commissioned as a private devotional text, and there is some evidence which suggests that it might have been produced for a member of the Senhouse family in Northern England.  It has for long been known as the ‘St Andrews Psalter’, but for no good reason other than that we have owned it since at least the late 17th century, when it appears in a Library catalogue.

Leaves 40v-41r of the “St Andrews Psalter” (St Andrews msBX2033.A00), depicting a monk within an illuminated initial with full border decorations and illuminations
Leaves 40v-41r of the “St Andrews Psalter” (St Andrews msBX2033.A00), depicting a monk within an illuminated initial with full border decorations and illuminations
An illuminated initial 'E' of the “St Andrews Psalter” (St Andrews msBX2033.A00)
An illuminated initial ‘E’ from the “St Andrews Psalter” (St Andrews msBX2033.A00)

This is a very high grade manuscript, with well-written text and a consistently fine level of decoration of initials. Its stunning feature, however, is the extraordinarily lavish decoration of the borders of eight of the pages.

An illuminated initial 'D' from the “St Andrews Psalter” (St Andrews msBX2033.A00)
An illuminated initial ‘D’ from the “St Andrews Psalter” (St Andrews msBX2033.A00)

These borders correspond to the first psalms sung at Matins on each day of the week, and the first psalm sung at vespers on Sunday. Dr Julian Luxford, of St Andrews’ School of Art History (whose interpretation of the manuscript is heavily relied on for this post), describes them in the Treasures of St Andrews University Library: “from the burnished gold and lush, almost tropical, tangled of stylized foliage, human and animal figures occasionally emerge… including dragons, apes, foxes, a magpie and a man in a parti-coloured jacket.”

Leaf 84r of the “St Andrews Psalter” (St Andrews msBX2033.A00), depicting a griffin within an illuminated initial 'D'
Leaf 84r of the “St Andrews Psalter” (St Andrews msBX2033.A00), depicting a griffin within an illuminated initial ‘D’

Luxford highlights two of the pages for more detailed attention. The yellow griffin on Psalm 109 has a scroll in its mouth bearing the motto Deo Gracias, and has a green parrot peering through the foliage – the motto and the parrot (although not the griffin) being associated with the crest of the Senhouse family. Psalm 52 is introduced with a picture of St Francis in conversation with a magpie, perhaps indicating him as an object of ridicule.

Detail of King David depicted within an illuminated initial 'B' from the “St Andrews Psalter” (St Andrews msBX2033.A00)
Detail of King David depicted within an illuminated initial ‘B’ from the “St Andrews Psalter” (St Andrews msBX2033.A00)
Norman Reid, Head of Special Collections, with the "St Andrews Psalter" (photograph by Peter Adamson)
Norman Reid, Head of Special Collections, with the “St Andrews Psalter” (photograph by Peter Adamson)

Irrespective of how we interpret the decorated pages, however, they are unarguably beautiful: this is one of the most prized items in our collections, one of the most frequently exhibited, and one of the most awe-inspiring. It deserves its place as the culmination of our Inspiring Illustrations series.

NR

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