The Leaves from a Psalter, divided between the Fitzwilliam Museum and the Morgan Library & Museum, are the work of William de Brailles. The seven miniatures manifestly once formed part of a cycle of prefatory miniatures to a psalter, a popular book for use in the private prayer of medieval Christians. They were painted in the 1230s, probably in Oxford, where William was active. The artist "signed" the miniature of the Last Judgment: "W. de Brailes made me."
Among the paintings are some extraordinary subjects, such as the Fall of the Rebel Angels, based on the medieval Christian belief that Satan and his evil cohort were banished from heaven before Creation (Fitzwilliam, leaf 1).
Miniatures with Multiple Scenes
Two of the miniatures are divided into multiple fields. One comprises scenes from Genesis, including the Lord clothing Adam and Eve and the first pair toiling with spade and spindle (Fitzwilliam, leaf 2). Another is devoted to scenes from the infancy of Christ in an ensemble with portraits of Old Testament figures and animals (Morgan).
William's declaration of his responsibility for the miniature of the Last Judgment (Fitzwilliam, leaf 3) appears next to a representation of his soul as a naked figure. Saint Michael the archangel wielding a sword grabs him by the wrist and rescues him. This is not the only instance of William signing his work, and his style is distinctive enough that the Oxford Bible Pictures can be securely attributed to him.
The Wheel of Fortune
The personification of Fortune turning her wheel occupies the center of one miniature, a very unusual subject for a psalter (Fitzwilliam, leaf 4). The legend of Theophilus—saved from his bad fate through the miraculous intercession of the Virgin Mary—unfolds in eight semicircular fields around the wheel. Sixteen more compartments around the perimeter show stages of human development.
A Psalm Verse in a Picture
A miniature of the Tree of Jesse—a visualization of Christ's ancestry as a family tree growing from the figure of Jesse, the father of the Israelite king David—incorporates the opening verse of Psalm 1 written in white and red display script on bands of color (Fitzwilliam, leaf 6). King David, the purported author of the psalms and ancestor of Christ, embraces the text.
A Storied Modern History
The first trace of the leaves' history is found in the nineteenth century when the leaves now in the Fitzwilliam were in the collection of Joseph Barrois (d. 1855). After that, the leaves passed through the hands of Bertram Ashburnham (1785-1855), Earl of Ashburnham; his son, also Bertram (1797-1978); George C. Thomas (1839-1909); A. S. W. Rosenbach (1876-1952); and A. Chester Beatty (1875-1968). The Fitzwilliam Museum acquired them in 1932.
The Morgan leaf was bound in the early twentieth century into an extra-illustrated copy of Thomas Frognall Dibdin's Bibliographical Decameron, later owned by Mrs. Walter P. Bliss. It was purchased in 1963 by the Pierpont Morgan Library (now Morgan Library & Museum) from John F. Fleming (1910-1987).