The nineteen folios that comprise the DeLisle Psalter are the surviving calendar and prefatory illuminations from an early fourteenth-century English Gothic psalter. It is named for its original owner, Robert de Lisle (Lyle), who had inscribed a colophon at the bottom of the December calendar page bequeathing the book to his youngest daughters' convent, Chicksands. Likely made at Westminster, it is a text for private devotion commissioned by a highly literate and pious nobleman. Its iconic full-page images and complex diagrams function as a tool to guide Christian prayer and contemplation.
The manuscript was the work of two masters and was completed around twenty years after it was begun. After a rather unpretentious calendar, the twenty-four full-page illuminations and diagrams that follow are exquisite in their rich colors, brilliant gilding, and devotional content. Although missing the text of the Psalms, what remains of the manuscript places it among the major works of English Gothic illumination.
Two Masters of Gothic Illumination
Two distinct hands contributed to the DeLisle Psalter. The earlier is known as the Madonna Master. His work is highly theatrical and emotional with exquisitely rendered drapery. His hand is responsible for the majority of the illuminations and was completed before 1310.
The book was completed around two decades later by another artist called the Majesty Master. His style was Continental, employing a more brilliant use of color with greater physicality and realism in his human figures. Despite the change in artists and delay in completion, the psalter retained its homogenous design and compositional style.
Early English Example of the Three Living and the Three Dead
For all of its spectacular illuminations, the most enduring is the image known as the Three Living and the Three Dead. Placed at the top of fol. 127, it is a half-page composition divided into two halves. The left shows three young kings in fine clothing passing along a road during the hunt. There they meet with three corpses, shown on the right.
The poses of the dead on the right mirror those of the living on the left, visually connecting the warning of the dead captured in the English text above: "I was well fair, such shall you be, for God's love, beware by me" imploring the living to cast aside vain pursuits to tend instead to their immortal spirits.
Robert de Lisle, the pious Baron
Born the son of petty nobility Robert "of the Island" was elevated to 1st Baron Lisle by Edward II. A pious man, the illuminations within his psalter reflect an interest in private devotion and intellectual reflection on matters of the spirit.
After his wife's death, he joined the Franciscans and was buried at the Grey Friars in London. Despite his wishes that his psalter passes to his daughters, there is no evidence it was ever at Chicksands.
Possession of it is unknown until 1590 when William Howard inscribed it on fol. 117 and bound it with a similar work, "The Howard Psalter." It was presented to the Royal Society in 1667 and purchased by the British Museum in 1831.
We have 3 facsimiles of the manuscript "The De Lisle Psalter":
- De-Lisle Psalter facsimile edition published by Mueller & Schindler, 2008
- Il Salterio di Robert de Lisle facsimile edition published by Scripta Maneant, 2008
- Salterio de Lisle facsimile edition published by Eikon Editores, 2008