Only a small number of manuscripts in the Bibliothèque Nationale may surpass the Psalter of Saint Louis in value and celebrity. Its value as one of the foremost artistic documents of French Gothic resides not only in the fact that it belonged to this French sovereign (1226-1270), whose great sense of justice and statesmanship were widely known, but also in the close relationship between its miniatures and the stained glass windows of the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris.
This precious manuscript today holds 260 leaves, including 78 sumptuous full-page miniatures and eight magnificent figural initials. The miniatures literally illustrate diverse scenes of the Old Testament and undoubtedly represent a highlight of Gothic book illumination.
The text pages of the Calendar and the psalms in Latin perfectly match the pictorial decoration. With their exactly executed calligraphy, elegantly balanced text layout and rich decoration, they greatly contribute to the Psalter of Saint Louis which is considered a masterpiece of book illumination. Much like the stained glass windows in the Sainte-Chapelle of which we are reminded in various aspects, the Psalter not only constitutes a work of art but was mainly intended to provide a deeper understanding of the Scripture.
The precious miniatures
The biblical scenes are all depicted on a sumptuously burnished golden ground, thus lending the pictures an appearance of unequalled splendid glory. The back of each miniature painted on beautiful bright vellum has been left blank to avoid the impairment of pictures due to colours shining through from the other side of the page. When opening the book, the beholder thus sees either two paired miniatures or two legends in French inscribed by a contemporary scribe on the verso side of each page.
Although the manuscript seems to be the work of a team of illuminators, as was the case with most medieval manuscripts, it reflects great coherence. Most of the miniatures conform to the same design, the upper part being ornate with architectural motives, a common feature of the early medieval tradition. The space below the architectural section is composed of two equally large oblong surfaces, usually representing Old Testament scenes.
The figures are slender, graceful, and of a noble and elegant posture. They convey a feeling of harmony and movement, strangely contrasting with the seriousness and sometimes even the horror of the topics treated. Besides the deep blue and rose in the vestments of the depicted persons, one also finds light green, grey blue and delicate tones of rose emerging timidly.
The inventive frames
All miniatures are set in frames. Some of them consist of big interlacing branches with trident leaves, their corners being filled with two intertwining dragons. Other frames are formed of alternately blue and red strips which are ornate with delicate golden foliage. Finally, some frames borrowed from Arab calligraphy show classical foliage combined with other, less frequently used motives.
A saintly picture book
The tradition of combining Old Testament scenes with Davidian psalms probably goes back to late antiquity, a tradition which was to be rediscovered by English scribes and Byzantine masters in the 12th or 13th century when the crusaders had established links between the West and the Christian Orient.
In the 13th century there was a predilection for the depiction of biblical narratives, in the art of stained glass as well as in sculpture and illumination. It was the heyday of big didactic works which almost exclusively consisted of pictures, such as the Bible moralisée or the magnificent Bible of Saint Louis.
A king’s prayer book
We know with great certainty that Saint Louis was the owner of the Psalter which he had perhaps commissioned or even devised himself. We may be sure that the sovereign, whose biographers confirm that he read the Bible or other saintly books every day, was perfectly able to recognise and appreciate the depiction's of the Old Testament.
After the death of Saint Louis, his Psalter passed through several noble hands and finally ended up in the National Library in Paris. It was on each occasion a highly venerated gift.
- Images courtesy of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France