The Psalter of Blanche of Castile, made in Paris in the first quarter of the 13th century, is an exquisite example of Parisian book illumination. The codex, also known as Sainte-Chapelle Psalter, features 27 beautifully illuminated full-page miniatures, 9 historiated initials, and 24 calendar medallions containing episodes from the New and Old Testaments.
The Psalter of Blanche of Castile, written in Latin and illuminated by unknown artists, takes its name from its assumed commissioner, Blanche of Castile (1188-1252), Queen of France by marriage to Louis VIII and mother of Louis IX. The volume is also known as the Psalter of Sainte Chapelle, a Gothic chapel where the cherished codex was preserved for several centuries.
A Masterpiece of French Gothic
The iconography of the Psalter of Sainte-Chapelle is tremendously detailed, featuring countless decorations and drolleries of birds, dogs, and dragons, in a style reminiscent of the imposing windows of Gothic cathedrals. The miniatures, with their color and luminosity, are a testament to the craftsmanship of artists part of the Paris school, who illuminated the codex using tempera, ink, and gold leaf on parchment.
According to scholars, the kneeling lady on fol. 122v is Blanche of Castile, uncrowned because she ascended the throne in 1223, after the psalter was finished. Whether the manuscript was commissioned for Blanche or passed to her at a later time, this charming psalter was certainly meant as a gift to a noble lady, due to the opulent use of gold and the title in a prayer on fol. 190r featuring the words miserrimam peccatricem (the most miserable sinner).
A Royal Codex in a Royal Chapel
The Psalter of Blanche of Castile was kept in the treasury of the Sainte-Chapelle from 1335 until the end of the 18th century. The Sainte-Chapelle is a “Holy Chapel” built in the courtyard of the Palais de la Cité in Paris to preserve Louis IX’s large collection of relics. At the end of the 18th century, the codex was brought to the Bibliothèque de l'Arsenal, a part of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, where it is housed today.
The Psalter of Blanche of Castile is protected by a 14th-century gold-embroidered binding presumably commissioned by Charles VI. The binding, known as chemise—the French word for shirt—is one of the only three surviving embroidered medieval bindings in France, and features a gold-embroidered fleurs-de-lis pattern on blue background.