Encased within its precious horn binding, the Bamberg Psalter is a masterwork of Late Romanesque book art and is an elite example of a thirteenth-century private devotional book. Created in the environs of Regensburg, the tome eventually ended up in the treasury of Bamberg Cathedral and was likely made during the construction of the majestic building.
Written in Latin, the Bamberg Psalter contains extensive devotional texts and illustrations spread over 208 folios. Following a calendar decorated with beautiful medallions featuring the labors of each month along with the associated zodiac symbol, the manuscript is dedicated to the 150 Psalms.
The Psalms include three pictorial cycles that divide the Psalter into three parts and introduce each section with a series of five full-page miniatures in rich and bold colors. In addition to these fifteen miniatures on gold grounds, the Psalms are broken into the eight-fold liturgical division, each of which is signaled by a full-page decorated initial, three of which are historiated. Canticles, prayers, litanies, and other short offices conclude the magnificent book.
New Testament Pictorial Cycles
Prefatory cycles were deluxe additions in Psalters of this time period and often included images from the Life the Christ. These New Testament additions to the Psalter helped visualize the fulfilled prophecies of the Old Testament with a narrative of salvation.
The Bamberg Psalter has not one but three monumental cycles, each consisting of five full-page miniatures. These are framed by ornamented rectangular frames, the boundaries of which are often beautifully broken the monumental figures or their implements, emphasizing the generous margins of the manuscript's extremely fine parchment.
In dazzling colors and in unbelievably good condition, these miniatures mark the final flowering of Romanesque painting before the stylistic transition toward the Gothic style.
A Script of Golden Splendor
The script of the manuscript is an elegant early Textualis and was clearly executed by the finest scribes available. The attention lavished on the text is evident in its decoration: each Psalm begins with a three-line initial painted in gold on a green/blue background that may also contain a figure, animal, or building. The verses of each Psalm are also highlighted in gold letters.
Made for Personal Devotion
Such an extravagant commission of this level of mastery could have only been made for a very influential and wealthy patron. The origins of the Bamberg Psalter are still debated and are loosely defined as the environs of Eichstätt.
The beginning of Psalm 86 on fol. 99v might offer a hint to the illustrious book's owner: the gold initial depicts a woman with her hands raised in prayer.
The book was also personalized very shortly after its creation to include a second entry for the 5th of June. There, a note regarding a crime which occurred in the year 1245 was added that reads: "Gebehardus iunior comes de Hirzperch dormiens occiditur" (Gebhard, count of Hirschberg, was murdered in his sleep). The illustrated woman might have had a familial connection to the bailiff of the Prince-Bishopric of Eichstätt and his noble family.
Although its origins are uncertain, the Psalter made its way to the Bamberg Cathedral Sacristy around 1430, moving from there into the cathedral's treasury in 1743. This limited changing of hands probably ensured the survival of its spectacular binding.
The original horn binding is perhaps the Bamberg Psalter's most striking feature and measures 25.8 x 18 centimeters with a thickness of 8.3 cm. This example is one of only eighteen surviving from the Middle Ages and features an illuminated parchment sheet covered in a thin sheet of translucent horn and framed by strips of silver.
The panel on the front features Christ enthroned in Majesty, holding a book on his knee that resembles the Psalter itself. The back cover has a similar layout and depicts the enthroned Virgin and Child surrounded by apostles and potentially the female personifications of the four cardinal virtues.