The Great Canterbury Psalter is justly considered one of the most unique Anglo-Byzantine-Gothic psalters. Also known as Salterio glosado, the codex was written and illuminated in two different periods and in two different places. With its 8 beautifully executed full-page miniatures, over 90 medium-size miniatures, 28 historiated initials and 190 decorated letters, the manuscript is a magnificent example of artistic combination of English and Catalan painting.
The Great Canterbury Psalter: English and Catalan Art
The Great Canterbury Psalter is divided into two different sections due to the diverse and varied features of its iconographic apparatus. Indeed, the first section – comprising 184 ff., 8 full-page miniatures, and 52 smaller illustrations – is modeled on the Ultrecht Psalter and it was created in the scriptorium of Canterbury Cathedral around the beginning of the 13th century.
Although the artists behind the English iconographic project of the manuscript are unknown, what is certain is their ability to create images exuding deep symbolism, in addition to mastering the art of facial expression to the point that each animal seems to have its own personality.
Sudden Interruption of the Manuscript
The first section must have been suddenly interrupted as the Canterbury artists were prevented from finishing the sumptuous illuminations that characterize the manuscript. Due to the lavishness and magnificence of its illuminations and the symbolic images intended for a learned audience, it has been suggested that the Great Canterbury Psalter was intended for a king.
The second section of the Great Canterbury Psalter – from f.185 on – features 46 exquisitely illustrated large miniatures painted on red grounds, 28 historiated initials also on red ground, and 190 beautiful decorated letters, all created in a single workshop in Catalonia.
Artistic Synthesis of Anglo-Byzantine and Gothic Styles
The painter behind the Catalan iconographic project is Ferrer Bassa, who also completed a few miniatures (ff.144, 146, 160, 162, 164, 172) of the first part on the basis of the sketches left by the English masters.
These illustrations represent a unique fusion of the Anglo-Byzantine art of the early 13th century and the Gothic style of Trecento, giving life to a work which is to be considered one of a kind. The second part features a delicate use of color typical of the Trecento style with the use of more naturalistic landscapes.
Regal History of the Great Canterbury Psalter
It is very likely that the Catalan part of the work was commissioned by Peter the Ceremoniosus, who became king of Aragon in 1336. He was not the only royalty in the history of the manuscript for it seems almost certain that it belonged to Jean, Duke of Berry, Margaret of Austria, and Mary of Hungary. In 1796 Napoleon brought it to Paris where it remains safely preserved.
English Vernacular Minuscule
The Great Canterbury Psalter exhibits an excellent example of English Vernacular minuscule, also referred to as Anglo-Saxon round minuscule. This script, typical of England and Ireland comes after the Anglo-Saxon Square, dated around the 10th century. It is worth of notice that the first prayer was copied in a Catalan hand dated between the 14th and 15th century.
The manuscript no longer features its original binding and the current one was made for Napoleon I in 1809.