The Royal Psalter of Queen Mary was named after its later owner, Queen Mary I Tudor (1516-1558). Today, it is a showpiece in the British Library, kept under the "royal" signature Royal 2 B. VI. An impressive manuscript from the first quarter of the 14th century, this psalter contains more than 800 miniatures, historiated initials, and bas-de-page scenes.
A Psalter and a Picture Bible
With its wealth of images, the Queen Mary Psalter is also a picture Bible and was certainly used as such. It likely offers the most detailed picture cycle of the Old Testament ever created in Psalter: 223 miniatures in the finest colored pen drawings tell the biblical events from the fall of the angels, creation, to the death of Solomon.
Four full-page miniatures of the ancestors of Christ, prophets, and Apostles, are accompanied by Anglo-Norman captions and explanatory text. In addition, an extensive cycle of miniatures on the life of Jesus and the saints adorns the psalms, canticles, and litany.
The Psalter also contains 23 historiated initials with scenes from the life of King David, who was considered throughout the Middle Ages as the author of the Psalms. Other scenes from the New Testament can also be found throughout the historiated initials.
The perpetual calendar is decorated with 24 page-wide framed miniatures illustrating signs of the Zodiac and labors of the month.
The Middle Ages in Book Format
The blank space at the bottom of the page, known as the "bas-de-page," serves as another stage for the book's artist, known as the Queen Mary Master, to show off his creative and skilled hand.
In 464 small picture narratives, the viewer discovers the Middle Ages in all its diversity: the animal world of the bestiary, knights in tournaments and battles, hunting scenes with stags, hare, and falconry, courtly life with table delights, musicians, jugglers, and games, drolleries and mythological creatures such as unicorns and sirens, legends from the lives of the Virgin Mary and the saints, etc.
Gothic Art for the English Royal Court
No coat of arms has revealed anything to scholars about the patron or recipient, but the size and richness of the decoration in this magnificent manuscript easily point to the English royal court. Scholars have debated whether Edward II (r. 1307- 27) commissioned the Psalter, or perhaps his wife, Queen Isabella.
Devotional Book for Noble Ladies
Psalters were the favorite devotional books of noble ladies, but from them the children of kings and princes also learned to read, pray, and memorize their Biblical stories. The Queen Mary Psalter would have provided enough "school material" along with exciting stories and identifiable chivalric figures to instruct a future king.
The Queen Mary Master
The charm of Gothic art and of the book's artist, known as the Queen Mary Master, is revealed in the fine craftsmanship and delicate coloring, as well as in the miniatures in bright colors. These included elegant slender figures in graceful posture, dignified faces with defined eye and cheek parts, artistic draperies, and compositions of great clarity.
The refinement of the artist's style shows clear influences of Parisian Gothic book illumination contemporary to when the book was produced. The lively figures in the manuscript's miniatures and initials are particularly effective against their sparkling gold backgrounds. The aesthetics of the Queen Mary Master were to be formative for an entire generation of English book illumination.
Today's book cover bears the emblems of Queen Mary Tudor, to whom the psalter was presented as a gift in 1553. A red leather binding with rich gold embossing on the spine adorns the facsimile volume. Gilded, punched corners and engraved clasps with the emblems of the House of Tudor - lion, lily, lattice, and dragon - decorate the covers.