Sunday, July 10, 2016

The Utrecht Psalter, and its Furniture, Part I

In the Utrecht University library is housed a very important Carolingian manuscript, known as the Utrecht Psalter. Years ago, when I first learned about it, there was some debate as to whether it was from the 9th century, or the 8th, but it seems that for the most part, the argument has settled on the early 9th century side. The manuscript is a typical medieval Psalter, which is a book of the psalms plus other liturgical content, intended to be used for private devotional reading, Psalters were the most widely owned books by the upper levels of secular society in the early Middle Ages.

This particular Psalter has an illustration for each psalm as well as a few illustrations related to the non-Psalms part of the text. All the illustrations are done in either brown or brown-black ink and were produced by several artists, judging by the variations in style. Some illustrations are much more expressionistic than others, but they are all rather loose and fluid. It is my own opinion that the illustrations were originally intended to be painted in, but someone never got around to doing that bit. Some of the artwork has been gone over again with darker ink, making them much easier to discern. The fact that this was done later than the initial brown ink drawing can be proven by the fact that some illustrations are partly intensely-inked whilst the rest of the same illustration is still light brown. In at least some of the images, the artist who did the dark ink did not work as loosely as the one doing the original light brown ink drawings.

Folio 1v of the Utrecht Psalter,
this page is approximately  25cm wide
St Mathew from the so-called Ebbo Gospel (fol 18v)
The similarity in style is very strong. Perhaps the
original plan for the Utrecht Psalter was to colour
it in as this one was?

The University of Utrecht has put the entire manuscript on-line for viewing by the general public. Years ago, this was in a low resolution format, but not long ago, wanting to reference one of the illustrations, I discovered that they now have it available in extremely high resolution. I applaud this decisions highly as I feel that every ancient manuscript aught to be accessible to the public, not locked away or kept as a treasure to be horded by whatever institution holds it. These manuscripts belong to posterity, and should be available online for anyone who wishes to study them, because for sure 99.99% of the population will never get a chance to actually see the original work, even if they pay to visit the museum or library where it is held. (Some institutions are making their collection available, such as BNF, [some works in] the British Library, and several others. However there are scores of other works which one will only read of the existence of in some scholarly paper and no images therefrom are available anywhere.)

There are a host of subjects illustrated in this manuscript, and whomever was in charge of the programe for each Psalm seemed not always to have followed the most logical or main idea of the text. On the website dedicated to this manuscript, one can click on any portion of a drawing and see the "relevant" passage from the accompanying Psalm, sometimes these are very vague and ambiguous at best. An example would be the annotation for a group of warriors (there are lots of groups of warriors) which says,"They are bound, and have fallenbut we are risen, and are set upright" As with most medieval illustrations, many subjects and episodes are combined in a single 'picture' In general, one gets the impression of a very violent world, based on these illustrations.

Because not all of the images were created by the same artist, some are much more 'legible' than others, due to the intensity of the ink, the quality of the work itself, and the fact that some text has bled through from the opposing side of the page, making it difficult to distinguish the drawing from the text. It is also interesting to note that one artist might have given more attention to the details of the figures, another, to that of the landscapes and yet another to the architecture. I first noticed this phenomenon because one artist was extremely loose and even more suggestive than the others with the furnishings in his illustrations, but at the same time, gave more detail to the architectural elements than any of the other artists. One of the easiest ways to note the differences in the artistic style of the various illustrators of this volume is to examining the foliage on the trees; at least five different hands seem to have been at work based on the variations in the styles used.

It would seem that at least five different artist were
at work on these illuminations based on variations
in style. These trees give a good example of that.
Before these illustrations were done in ink, they were first drawn with a silver stylus or an even weaker ink; some of that initial drawing was not inked in later, and one can still see remnants of the first sketches.  A couple examples of that can be seen in the edge of a building in the upper left side of the third tree depicted above, and in some rocks beside the fourth tree.

Obviously, since the primary aim of this blog is on furniture, that was the main focus of my attention in studying this manuscript. I went through the entire Psalter, one page at a time, in full magnification, scanning for any objects of furniture, and then making notes of each item I found. An alphabetical synopsis follows: (In the interest of not being too long-winded, this will be covered fully in three blog postings).


This might surprise some as being included in a treatise on furnishings, but an altar is furniture for a church. many were constructed of wood, and their form is essentially a large cabinet.

All of the altars had this same basic shape. This form
is also found in the Classical period for "pagan"
altars. The cruciform ornament on the roof
indicates that this is a church.

This is the only altar which gives any indication of being made from
anything other than a block of solid stone. This alter represents
objects made of panels with mitered corners to the stiles and rails.
This sort of construction is indicated on various early medieval
furniture including chairs, cabinets, and doors; it offers an argument
against the generally held notion that panel construction was
an invention of the 13th/14th century.

In this manuscript, all 45 altars depicted are nearly identical. The artists made no distinction between the form of an altar used in a biblical setting, for the purpose of an animal sacrifice, and a Christian altar in a church, used for the celebration of the sacraments. The two main distinctions are (sometimes) drawn by the use of fire on an Old Testament type of altar, and the use of a crucifix on top of the representation of a church building, denoting a contemporary structure and altar. There are a couple of altars which seem to indicate panels to the sides, and about 40% of them are draped with an altar cloth. The most interesting point for me, is that they have exactly the same form as the plinth chairs, (more on these later) and the former can often only be distinguished by an absence of the accompanying footrest.

A Mithraic altar from the Romanian National
Museum (via Wikipedia). This altar is some 500
years older than our manuscript of this study, but
this was one of the earliest forms for an altar and
continued in some form or other for centuries after.


This example seems to represent a metal frame model. it is similar to examples
found in "late antiquity" (3rd-5th centuries) illustrations.

The most detailed bed drawing; perhaps this one indicates a wooden
construction. Here is an example of a partially re-inked drawing.

The Romans seemed to have had various types of beds for different functions, the main two types were flat beds, and beds with a raised headrest, similar to what is now called a "day bed" The Germanic tribes seemed to have preferred sleeping in flat box type beds however, (as proven by early grave finds). There are 16 beds illustrated in this manuscript, 13 of which are of the Roman reclining bed form. Due to size variations, and the artists attention to detail, some are more elaborate than others, but the illustrations seem to indicate both metal and wooden versions; some plain and others ornately designed. In addition, there are two flat beds, but these are little more than suggestions, and no real design information can be discerned from them. The last bed seems to be of the box type, and is important because it is the only one which gives any suggestion of the medieval practice of a fabric canopy over the bed.


Not a very clear drawing, save for the right rear post, this seems to be a bench
made of turned front and back posts with ball finials and a flat gabled backrest.
An actual bench with a very similar form from 12th century Sweden,
some 350 years after the above illustration. (thanks to St Thomas Guild
for the photo)

A more ornate bench, this one is reminiscent of the jewel encrusted coronation
chair of Charles the Bald, as depicted in his Psalter of ca 850-60 . This image
seems to indicate a bench with ornamented square front and back posts with
an inset panel to the sides.
Coronation of Charles the bald, from a
Psalter ca 850-60

There are ten benches in this manuscript, and it is this form of furniture which exhibits the greatest variety of style, as well as some of the grandest suggestion of ornament. nearly half of the benches are just plinth chairs which are long enough to accommodate two or more persons. Two benches seem to be constructed of a plank with square legs attached, one is of a turned construction, similar to the few extant 12th century north European benches, two of them are more massive, and elaborately carved and decorated, and one has turned back legs, but carved lions for the front supports, in a manner reminiscent of the Dagobert Chair from the 7th century.

Again, very difficult to discern, but this bench has cabriole legs with lion's
heads and feet as the front support columns. Notice also the arcaded
footrest. This is an example of the text bleeding through the page.

Box or Casket;

The only small casket or box depicted in the Utrecht Psalter.
A small "purse" casket and a larger rectangular one, both made from gilt-
copper alloy and originating in the 9th century. The larger box is very much
in the form of the one depicted in the Psalter. (Elwangen treasury)

There is only one box illustrated. It is depicted with an open lid and is held by a woman who seems to be offering the contents thereof to a king who stands next to her. Other than its form and size, no information can be conferred from this illustration. (There is one other illustration of a man crouched down, either hiding behind, or pushing a cube shaped object, but since no frame, lid, or other distinguishing features are included, I have omitted it from any category.)

A back panel from a 9th century ivory box, now in the MET.

The illustration of a small casket from the Utrecht Psalter demonstrates a key point which I continuously wish to reinforce. Medieval artwork was primarily representational and never meant to accurately portray anything. The accompanying photograph shows an actual metal box of the same basic form, but there were also ivory boxes, and presumably wooden ones. Just as in later medieval times or even in our own, there were nearly as many ways to decorate a box as there were boxes to be made. There still exist from the 13th and 14th century, boxes made of metal, ivory, bone, and wood, which are further decorated with foil, gems, beads, intarsia, straw, paint, and even coloured eggshells. I see no reason not to assume that similar practices were not carried out in the 9th century as well. The only real information we can glean from illuminated manuscripts are form and sometimes general style. Some may even give glimpses to construction methods and type of ornamentation, but none will ever give an accurate representation of an actual anything.

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