The Queen Mary Psalter
A Manuscript Beyond Compare
An early-14th-century manuscript that is a supreme masterpiece of Gothic book art: more than 800 miniatures, historiated initials and bas-de-page scenes! Regardless of which page you turn to in the Queen Mary Psalter, you will immediately be immersed in a fantasy-filled visual world. It is almost miraculous that a single artist has created this overwhelming abundance of images, but every element of the book’s decoration appears to be from a single hand and displays the same high level of artistic quality. For the first time, you can now experience the full magnificence of this royal psalter in your own home – page by page and image by image, in the form of a faithful facsimile edition.
The Queen Mary Psalter
The Queen Mary Psalter: The Manuscript
A Royal Psalter
The Queen Mary Psalter, probably made in London, is one of the most valuable manuscripts in the collection of the British Library. The extent, the wealth of decoration and the consistently high artistic quality of the more than 800 illustrations leave no doubt that the patron came from the closest circle of the English royal family. The production is dated to the period 1310-1320, the reign of King Edward II and his wife Isabella of France. Was the original patron another member of the royal family who presented the Psalter to them as a gift or was it perhaps intended for a royal child? The first documented owner of the Psalter is the English Queen Mary I Tudor (r. 1553-1558), whose name the Psalter bears today.
A Single Brilliant Illuminator
It is hard to believe that the Queen Mary Psalter is the work of a single illuminator. Miniatures, drawings, initials – everything is of one piece and of a quality that outshines all other English and French Gothic book illumination. The illuminator is only known by his name of convenience “the Queen Mary Master”. He stands out as a singular personality whose technical skill and imagination enabled him to evolve a personal style out of multifarious sources. His figure style is an exquisite new interpretation and refinement of the art which had already been established in England. His role in English art can be compared with that of Giotto for his followers in Italy, and that of Jean Pucelle in Paris, in exactly the same historical period.
With its abundance of images, the Queen Mary Psalter is a true picture Bible. It begins with a cycle of 223 illustrations of the Old Testament in the finest of hand-coloured pen drawings. Over 100 miniatures in bright colours and radiant gold depict the life, miracles and passion of Jesus in unusual iconographies. The empty space at the bottom of each page – known by the term “bas-de-page” – presents the Middle Ages in all their diversity in 464 small visual narratives: the animal world of the bestiary, knights in tournaments and in battle, scenes of deer and rabbit hunting as well as falconry, court life, drolleries and mythological creatures – the fantasy of the Queen Mary Master knew no bounds.
Queen Mary Psalter
Under the Magnifying Glass: Consummate Gothic illumination
Folio 233v shows the triad of miniature, historiated initial and bas-de-page scene typical of the Queen Mary Psalter. The Entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday takes place against a radiant gold background. A very carefully designed blue-red ornamental frame encloses the miniature, the intense colours still shining as if they had just been freshly painted. Christ on the donkey with her colt takes up almost the entire miniature space. His light coat of delicate shades of pink and light green over a garment of shell gold is striking. His companions, on the other hand, are wrapped in brightly coloured robes. The two disciples visually counterbalance the city gate of Jerusalem, which can hardly contain the crowd.
As a sign of reverence, one spreads a bright blue robe before the donkey’s hooves. Another has climbed into the tree to cut palm branches. In doing so, he bends the crown of the tree down so that it fits under the frame of the miniature. The historiated initial D(ixit) contains a representation of the Trinity. Even more clearly than in the opaque colour painting, the Queen Mary Master’s high skill in drawing is shown in the graphic bas-de-page depictions. Here St Stephen is preaching to three listeners. The folds of the vestments are drawn with a sure stroke, the subtle colouring reinforces the three-dimensional impression of the harmoniously proportioned figures.
Queen Mary Psalter
The Queen Mary Psalter: The Edition
Manuscript and Facsimile at a Glance
The Queen Mary Psalter brings together more than 800 miniatures, historiated initials and bas-de-page scenes. A single artist created this overwhelming wealth of images. He created a manuscript beyond compare that impresses with the highest artistic quality on every page.
Manuscript: British Library, Royal MS 2 B. VII
Date of origin: c. 1310–1320
Place of Origint: England, London (?)
Format: 27,5 x 17,5 cm
Extent: 638 pages (319 leaves)
Artist: an anonymous illuminator named the “Queen Mary Master”
Patron: from the closest relatives of King Edward II and his wife Isabella of France
Illumination: 374 miniatures including 151 miniatures in gleaming gold and opaque paints as well as 223 tinted drawings, 464 bas-de-page-scenes in delicately tinted grisaille drawing, 23 historiated initials, numerous multi-line coloured initials with gold, punched gold grounds, radiant gold leaf, shimmering brushed gold, luminous colours and silver
Binding: dark-red leather binding featuring ornate gold embossing on its spine, decorated with gilt and punched metal corner pieces and engraved fittings for clasps
Commentary Volume of the Facsimile Edition by Nigel Morgan / Lynda Dennison / Delbert Russell
Print run: 480 copies
The facsimile edition will be published in spring 2022.
Enjoy Viewing a Few Sample Pages:
A Glance at the Facsimile Manuscript
The pages selected for browsing comprise fol. 210v to fol. 214r. The small excerpt allows a glimpse of the diverse pictorial programme and the artistic talent of the Queen Mary Master. Miniatures, historiated initials, gold-radiated text pages and enchanting bas-de-page scenes make up the distinctive character of the Queen Mary Psalter. The miniatures depict Martha and Christ, Lazarus, John the Baptist and Christ teaching. The bas-de-page motifs show different miraculous interventions of the Virgin Mary.
Queen Mary Psalter
A Challenging Production: fac simile
A Facsimile of a National Treasure
A manuscript on the level of a national treasure is accessible only under the most severe restrictions. Years of negotiation were needed before a contract could be signed with the officials responsible for the work at the British Library. At the beginning of the facsimile process, every page of the Queen Mary Psalter was photographed on site at the British Library. Two lithographers then spent months working on the proofs for the reproduction of the luminous colours, the gleaming gold and the patina.
Many of the gold backgrounds are decorated with punching or chiselling, and individual proofs were also produced for these. Gleaming gold leaf and finely shimmering brushed gold were captured, with their various nuances, in separate gold proofs and reproduced in separate runs through the printing machine; sometimes it is minuscule passages of gold in chequered backgrounds that mysteriously sparkle. All the leaves are reworked by hand so that the gold sparkles as authentically as possible on the slightly wavy leaves.
Fine Leather, Embossed with Gold
A dark-red leather binding featuring a spine richly embossed in gold adorns the facsimile volume. Of the velvet binding from Queen Mary’s time, only the book covers remain and these are in such poor condition that, in consultation with the British Library, only the gilt and punched corner pieces and engraved fittings for clasp parts with the emblems of the House of Tudor – lion, fleur-de-lis, portcullis and dragon – are reproduced in the facsimile edition. The bookbinder binds the quires, which are sewn by hand to form the book block, into this robe.
Queen Mary Psalter
The Facsimile Folder for the Edition
In order to do justice to the rich imagery of the Queen Mary Psalter, a facsimile set of a special kind is being published to accompany the edition. The set contains a linen-bound facsimile album in the format 18.3 x 28.6 cm with three original facsimile bifolia featuring a total of 12 pages. They show the events surrounding Noah’s Ark (fol. 6-7), the twelve-year-old Jesus disputing with the Doctors (fol. 150-151) and various pictorial scenes from the Entombment to the doubting Thomas (fol. 280-281). A foretaste of the exciting contributions with the latest research results in the commentary volume is given in the 40-page accompanying booklet, in which the specialists Nigel Morgan and Lynda Dennison have also written a contribution for the first time.
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