Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The Macclesfield Psalter

Psalters—books of the Old Testament Psalms, usually decorated and illustrated—were common in the Middle Ages. They were intended for the private use of a family; a wealthy family, since the production of an illuminated psalter—although they were small, often the size of a modern paperback book—was expensive and time-consuming. Although they were prized possessions when they were made, we can understand if a book in Latin lost the interest of a family over the centuries.

We can be sympathetic, then, to the 9th Earl of Macclesfield, who did not know the contents of his library when a family dispute evicted him from Shirburn Castle in Oxfordshire, the family seat, in 2004. A thorough inventory (he was allowed to keep the contents of the castle, but not the estate), turned up a forgotten book, now known as the Macclesfield Psalter and housed in the Fitzwilliam Museum of the University of Cambridge.

The Macclesfield Psalter is 252 small pages of densely illustrated text. The artist showed a gift for blending the mundane with the absurd. Animals act as humans; humans and animals interact in impossible ways. It also showed more traditional images of holy figures, like Christ appearing on a rainbow, seen yesterday.

Other than the amusing and intricate illustrations, we know little about its history. Based on techniques used, and its similarity to other psalters of the same area, an origin of c.1330 is assumed. Similarity with other psalters made around this time suggest the same artist(s) and scribe(s) worked on multiple books that survive. Areas of pages that would have held a family crest have been removed, however, making identification with a particular patron impossible. There is, in the border of the Confession prayer, a man praying at an altar, and it is assumed that he is supposed to represent the head of the family. Beneath Psalm 107, a Dominican friar is depicted, who is assumed to be the owner's confessor. If you are interested in poring over its pages on a quest to learn more, you can purchase a complete facsimile from Amazon; there are second-hand copies floating around as well.

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