The Utrecht Psalter and its influence

The Utrecht Psalter, c. 825, Hautvilliers, near Reims, France, 380 x 310 mm (Universiteitsbibliotheek, Utrecht, MS 32, ff. 7v–8r), courtesy Universiteitsbibliothek, Utrecht; The Harley Psalter, early 11th century, Christ Church, Canterbury, 380 x 310 mm (British Library, BL, Harley MS 603, ff. 7v 8r), © 2019 British Library, used by permission; and the The Eadwine Psalter, c. 1150, Christ Church, Canterbury, 460 x 330 mm (Cambridge, Trinity College, MS R. 17.1, ff. 23v–24r) A conversation with Dr. Kathleen Doyle, Lead Curator, Illuminated Manuscripts, British Library and Dr. Beth Harris

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:03] We’re in the British Library, very fortunate to be looking at the “Utrecht Psalter.” It’s especially fascinating today in this “Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms” exhibition to see this book near other manuscripts that it influenced.

Dr. Kathleen Doyle: [0:21] I’m tremendously excited to conclude the exhibition with the extraordinary “Utrecht Psalter” and two of its early copies. It was made in France during the reign of Louis the Pious, so in the early 9th century.

Dr. Harris: [0:38] We’re referring to the time when Charlemagne and his successors ruled much of Europe.

Dr. Doyle: [0:42] And this must be one of the most elaborate and creative and interesting manuscripts ever made.

Dr. Harris: [0:52] We may be used to seeing manuscript illuminations where you have, for example, an evangelist page, a page that introduces the text of [the] manuscript. But here, what’s so wonderful about the “Utrecht Psalter” is that we have these illustrations that tie very tightly to the text and really bring it alive.

Dr. Doyle: [1:11] It’s a revolutionary approach. Every psalm gets its own…it’s almost like a comic strip layout. This horizontal register of images. This is a combination of quite literal depictions of a word or phrase in the relevant psalm, and also a more Christological interpretation, an understanding of the Psalms as a prefiguration of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection.

[1:45] For example, at the bottom of this page you see a man who’s touching his lips and he’s holding a cup. This refers to a phrase in the psalm which says “The Lord is my inheritance and my cup.” So it’s very direct picking up of that phrase.

[2:04] But other images are much more interpretive. We have a man leaning down to pull two figures out of a hole. This is probably the Harrowing of Hell, Christ rescuing Adam and Eve, and comes from another verse in the psalm. That verse is “Because thou wilt not leave my soul in hell.”

Dr. Harris: [2:28] So what we’re seeing here is this Old Testament, this Jewish Bible psalm, interpreted in the light of Christianity, of Christ’s descent into hell and bringing out souls from hell, including those of Adam and Eve. What I love especially about these illustrations is these lovely fluid lines that have a lot of energy, but they’re also very expressive of human emotion.

[2:56] Adam and Eve reaching up to Christ to save them from the mouth of hell, or one of my favorites is in Psalm 13. One of the lines is, “You have confounded the counsel of the poor man.” We see what looks like a woman with smaller figures, perhaps children, and a sense of their being neglected.

[3:20] They seem in need of pity and sympathy, which the woman in front of them is pleading with the ruler to provide to them, but he is involved in evil. We see those serpents twining around the canopy that he sits under and the violence around him. These are people who are not listening to the word of God, and we see God above them surrounded by angels.

Dr. Doyle: [3:46] This agitated, gestural — very emotional, as you say — style had an incredible impact on the art of Anglo-Saxon England, which is why it’s in the exhibition. We can see the influence of this in the book that’s placed right next to it, the “Harley Psalter.” The figures and what they’re doing, the way that they look is exactly the same, almost an exact copy of the “Utrecht Psalter.”

[4:16] This is the evidence that that earlier book was in England by around the year 1000, when this book was made. However, there’s an immediate difference.

Dr. Harris: [4:27] Ink in different colors.

Dr. Doyle: [4:28] Right. We’ve gone from the text in all capitals in the earlier book and all of the illustrations of this very delicate ink line drawing, but the ink was all black. Here, it’s been enlivened, and the ink is in red, green, blue, and it transforms how it looks on the page.

Dr. Harris: [4:53] We see again that kind of fluttering drapery, and the enlarged hands, which are very expressive, so we can really read the story.

Dr. Doyle: [5:02] They’re very sophisticated books. As you’ve just articulated, some of the visual commentary on the psalms are quite complicated. Moreover, we’ve got a change in the actual text itself. By tradition, Saint Jerome, working at the behest of the pope, made three translations of the psalms into Latin.

[5:24] The first one is the version that’s here in the “Harley Psalter,” which is known as the Roman version because it was adopted by the Church in Rome. It was, in the Anglo-Saxon period, the version that most often occurred in English psalters. In contrast, the Utrecht Psalter has the Gallican version that was adopted in Gaul.

[5:47] In the “Eadwine Psalter,” we’ve moved another century later. Here three versions appear in parallel columns, so the Gallicanum, the Roman, and the Hebraicum, but moreover, you’ve got two more versions.

[6:06] In the column closest to the gutter, you have little translations of the Latin words written in Anglo-Norman French. This is the language after the Norman conquest of the new aristocracy.

[6:21] Next to it, above the Romanum version, you have little words in Old English. This is the language of the old aristocracy. Then all around are words and phrases and marginal glosses, which is a Latin commentary explaining, in many cases, the Christological understanding of the psalms. This is an extraordinarily complex book.

Dr. Harris: [6:49] Although we see a lot of similarities to the earlier illustrations, we do see some differences here.

Dr. Doyle: [6:55] This is a much bigger book. Psalm 14, instead of taking half a page, takes a whole page and a half.

[7:02] On this one, you only get one illustration. It’s colored, it’s line drawings, but we’re seeing a move into what we sometimes refer to as Romanesque art. The fluttering drapery, as you mentioned, they’re gone. Everything’s straight, it’s linear, it’s more patterned, it’s more static. The illustration has been put in a box, so it’s separated from the text.

[7:29] We’re entering into, again, a different aesthetic, but again, faithfully keeping the sort of details — the man holding his cup, Christ reaching down to rescue Adam and Eve. Every time I come in and look at the details, I see something new.

Dr. Harris: [7:49] What a treat to see these three manuscripts side by side here in this remarkable exhibition of “Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms” in the British Library. It’s really wonderful to be here.

Dr. Doyle: [8:00] Thank you.

[8:01] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Kathleen Doyle, The British Library and Dr. Beth Harris, "The Utrecht Psalter and its influence," in Smarthistory, February 8, 2019, accessed June 23, 2024,