For most people, the first introduction to the Utrecht Psalter is not necessarily a revealing experience. The manuscript does not expose its beauty and meaning straight away. You have to get to know the Utrecht Psalter and only then will it intrigue you; and you must learn its story to be able to understand the impact of this amazing manuscript. Not many people are aware of the fame of the Utrecht Psalter. Why is it that this widely praised manuscript is still relatively unknown?
'And then I once again blush for shame when I remember the librarian from Poitiers in 1948, who treated me with awe because I came from the city of the Utrecht Psalter, the existence of which I was not even aware of.'
These words are from the memoirs of the mathmatician Hans Freudenthal published in 1987. It gives an apt description of the way in which the Utrecht Psalter is world famous among experts, but hardly among the general public. Many specialists have endorsed the claim that the Utrecht Psalter is an absolute masterpiece of Western medieval art. The last 150 years it has been carefully examined by leading art historians and other researchers, leading to quite a few controversies. The attention the manuscript has received may even be called exceptional.
The Utrecht Psalter is one of the first manuscripts which has been reproduced fully in photographic facsimile. This was done in 1873 at the request of the British government, and led directly to the founding of the London Palaeographical Society. In 1984 a colour facsimile was published. In 1932 and 1994 facsimiles were also published, containing only the illustrations. No other manuscript has ever been published four times in facsimile, which says a lot about the importance attached to the Utrecht Psalter. In addition six scholarly monographs were published about the manuscript (De Gray Birch 1876; Tikkanen 1903; De Wald 1932; Wormald 1953; Engelbregt 1965; Dufrenne 1978) as well as dozens of articles on the subject. In 1996 a collection of articles was published at the occasion of the exhibition The Utrecht Psalter in medieval art: picturing the psalms of David in the Utrecht museum ‘Het Catharijneconvent’. Of course the Utrecht Psalter is also included in I.F. Walther, Codices illustres. The world’s most famous illuminated manuscripts 400 to 1600 (2001). It is also pictured in standard works read by thousands of students, for instance Barbara Rosenwein’s A short history of the Middle Ages (3rd ed., 2009) or Peter Brown’s The rise of Western Christianity (rev. ed., 2013)
The Utrecht Psalter is the most valuable manuscript to be found in any Dutch collection. There is no single other manuscript in a Dutch collection so much written about and of which so many reproductions have been published, both in print and digitally on the Internet. As far as the medieval illuminated manuscripts are concerned only two manuscripts yield more references in Google Scholar (summer 2013): the Book of Kells (digital edition) in Trinity College Dublin, which is generally considered to be the most beautiful manuscript from the early Middle Ages, and the Lindisfarne Gospels (digital edition) in the British Library; both are insular manuscripts. As for scholarly references the Utrecht Psalter falls in the same category as the Très Belles Heures de Duc de Berry by the Limbourg brothers, which is generally viewed as the most beautiful manuscript from the late Middle Ages.
The Utrecht Psalter does not enjoy the same status as the manuscripts mentioned above enjoy in Ireland, England and France, which is partly due to the fact that it is not a Utrecht or even a Dutch manuscript. It was made in or near Reims in about the second quarter of the 9th century and ended up in Utrecht by chance. It has no ‘national’ significance as it were. In addition, the Utrecht Psalter lacks the exuberant colourfulness, the intriguing patterns or the shining gold (with the exception of a few leaves) the other manuscripts show. Besides, a famous manuscript is often less appealing to the general public than for instance a famous painting.
To explain the fascination for the Utrecht Psalter among scholars it is important to present the manuscript in such a way that its power of expression is well revealed. That power of expression mainly originates from the 166 pen drawings which accompany the text of each of the 150 psalms and the sixteen added biblical hymn texts, the so-called cantica. Here the question is not only how they have been pictured in relation to their context (what is depicted, in what way and in which composition) but also in relation to the style used.
Although probably eight artists have worked on the 166 illustrations, their style is relatively uniform. This style has been described as ‘nervous’, ‘dynamic’, ‘surrealistic’ and ‘baroque’, and the images sometimes evoke comparisons with the work of Hieronymus Bosch. It is the high point of the Reims school from the beginning and the middle of the 9th century, a period in which also other manuscripts and objects were made there. Anyone who studies the drawings in detail and links them to the text, will discover how refined and spectacular they are and as a result will be drawn into the masterpiece.
A comparison between the drawings in the Utrecht Psalter with those in other manuscripts from the same or previous periods shows clearly their originality, innovation and modernity. It is as if art has made a big leap forward, as if a revolution has taken place in the almost sketchlike depiction of the scenes illustrating the psalm verses. We see buildings, landscapes and heavens, full of kings, soldiers, angels, saints, sinners, craftsmen, musicians, children or a selection from the animal kingdom. Christ, the psalmist or David often play central parts. But also Atlas, the mouth of the Hell or demons with tridents appear on the scene.
Bringing psalms to life is not the easiest job, because they lack a narrative structure. How were the artists supposed to show the cries for help and pleas of the psalmist to be delivered from his enemies as well as his meditations, his prayers, eulogies and complaints? One of the options was to illustrate the concrete images evoked by isolated words or verses in the psalm texts. The artists of the Utrecht Psalter have succeeded in fully picturing the elements in the psalm texts which allowed and evoked literal illustrations. They combined these illustrations in carefully composed drawings which are across the width of the page above each psalm.
Let us take the first psalm as an example (cf. Van der Horst et al., 1996, 56-57). The text is on fol. 2r and differs in some places from the standard text of the Bible common nowadays. The picture on fol. 1v is the only one which fills the whole page. To the left we see the happy, blessed man (the beatus vir from verse one) holding a book and contemplating God’s law (verse 2). He does so night and day, as can be seen from the sun, moon and stars at the top. He keeps his distance from the sinners who are in the seat of pestilence (in cathedra pestilentiae). These are on the top right and are clearly armed. Small snakes crawl upwards via the right column near the chair. However, the beatus vir is planted like a tree near running water (verse 3) as we can see in the middle left. The lawless, however, are spread by the wind like chaff (verse 4). To the right of the tree we see the wind, personified by a blowing head causing the armed figures in the middle to stagger. They do not succeed to stand where God’s law reigns (verse 5) and their road comes to a dead end (verse 6). We see them, helped by winged demons, being driven in to the mouth of Hell. They are doomed.
All 150 psalms and 16 canticles are pictured in this way. The combination of the intellectual program to accomplish this and the innovative and imaginative style make the Utrecht Psalter so fascinating. To scholars, questions arise as to who made this, where, when, for whom and why, and where the artists got their inspiration from. These questions have led to a long series of researches, interpretations and discussions. The previously mentioned The Utrecht Psalter in medieval art: picturing the psalms of David from 1996 gives the latest updates in most respects, even though discussions still remain about the dating and the interpretation of certain illustrations on which no consensus is reached as yet.
Most experts agree that the Utrecht Psalter was made in 820-830, in Reims or in the nearby abbey of Hautvilliers, and was perhaps commissioned by archbishop Ebbo. It may have been a gift for Charlemagne’s son Louis the Pious, his wife Judith, or else their newborn son, the later emperor Charles the Bald. Specialists point to the late Roman iconography and the use of the late Roman capitalis rustica as script to show that the illustrations are (partly) based on one or more models from the 5th century. However, there is no question of mere copying, the illustrations show all kinds of Carolingian elements, interests and interpretations. Some even suspect political messages in certain illustrations.
The Reims style of the Utrecht Psalter, but certainly also the illustrations of certain psalms, remained a source of inspiration for years to come, especially at the court of Charles the Bald (d. 877). For reasons still unknown the manuscript ended up in Canterbury around the year 1000, where it was a direct inspiration for the production of the Harley Psalter (11th century), the Eadwine Psalter (12th century) and the Paris (Anglo-Catalan) Psalter (12th century). The Utrecht Psalter became a trendsetter and influenced the making of other psalters for centuries to come, and that is exceptional where manuscripts are concerned.
After the Reformation the manuscript came into the hands of the famous collector Robert Cotton (d. 1631) who had it rebound, and added twelve leaves of a Gospel from Northumbria made in the early 8th century – the fragments of an equally remarkable manuscript. Also the theft of the Psalter from Cotton’s collection and how it arrived in the Netherlands is a remarkable story. Finally it came into the hands of the Utrecht citizen Willem de Ridder who gave it to the University Library in the Janskerk in 1716. That is why it is called the Utrecht Psalter.
The Utrecht Psalter contains a copy of the so-called Athanasian Creed which caused a heated discussion in Great Britain around 1870: did this text (also known as Quicumque vult) belong to the early Christian doctrine or not? If so, it belonged to the Anglican service, even though the text was a thorn in the flesh of many Anglicans. The date of the Utrecht Psalter (late Roman or Carolingian) containing the Quicumque vult (fol. 90v-91r) had to give the answer. Hence the British government asked the Utrecht University permission for producing a facsimile in London, so that it could be studied more extensively. And so the manuscript came in the limelight. Even though the final conclusion was that the Utrecht Psalter dated back to the 9th century, the Athanasian Creed kept its place in the Anglican Church. The disputes the manuscript still creates nowadays is mainly battled out among art historians.
Until recently a facsimile was essential to researchers who wanted to study the manuscript without having to travel to Utrecht. However, the number of editions was limited. In 1996 Utrecht University Library made a digital facsimile on CD-ROM (later also online) which was very innovative in its time. Next to the digital picture of the pages, the text of the psalm in question could be found in Latin, Dutch, English and French. By clicking on a psalm verse a frame appeared around the illustration belonging to that particular verse in the manuscript. The CD-ROM is no longer compatible with modern software, and even the online version no longer worked properly and was switched off in 2011. The new digitization, funded by the Utrecht Alumni Fund, was published on this website in September 2013. There are now plans in development for an extensive digital presentation in which the text of the psalm verses is again linked to the illustrations, and which also includes an extensive scholarly introduction. It will be presented on a separate website in the future.