A Nostalgic Filter: A University of Pittsburgh Exhibition

Utrecht Psalter

Utrecht, Universiteitsbibliotheek, MS 32

Several illustrated psalters are featured in this exhibition, reflecting the popularity of these poetic prayers among Jews and Christians alike. Some open with portrayals of David as an ideal king; others depict droll hybrids in the margins; many open with stately liturgical calendars. The Utrecht Psalter, however, is highly unusual in its turn to the content of the psalms themselves.  Its densely inhabited landscape drawings illustrate each psalm with tiny figures who act out its metaphors in delightfully literal pantomimes. Perhaps these witty illustrations, animated by fluid penwork, helped novice readers understand and memorize the text. It is similar in style to books associated with the Carolingian emperors, leading to suggestions that it may have been designed as a princely textbook.

For unknown reasons the book was taken from France to Christ Church, Canterbury within a century of when it was first made, where it was the direct model for no less than three medieval copies. The book remained at Canterbury until the Dissolution of the Monasteries under Henry VIII; after this it passed through private collections until it was carried to the Netherlands in the wake of the English Civil War and surfaced in the Utrecht University library in the 19th century. In 1873 it became one of the first medieval books to be published in full facsimile; Pitt’s edition from 1984 allows its sensitive penwork to be explored in minute detail.

This manuscript has been the subject of multiple digital humanities projects that help viewers see the artful connections between its images and texts. Links and videos are available at the website of the Universiteitsbibliotheek Utrecht.

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