Macclesfield Psalter

Macclesfield Psalter Facsimile Edition

East Anglia, probably Norwich (United Kingdom) — Ca. 1330–1340

Sold at auction for £1.7 million in 2004: every page of the most remarkable English illuminated manuscript to be discovered in living memory is richly adorned with miniatures, historiated and zoomorphic initials, drolleries, and other décor

  1. The splendid Psalter was discovered at the beginning of the 21st century in the library of Shirburn Castle

  2. It is a small masterpiece of English Gothic illumination created ca. 1330–40 in East Anglia, probably Norwich

  3. The masterful and humorous drolleries of fanciful creatures, hybrids, and bawdy motifs are pregnant with meaning

Macclesfield Psalter

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  1. Description
  2. Detail Picture
  3. Single Page
  4. Facsimile Editions (1)
Description
Macclesfield Psalter

Named after its most recent owner, the Earl of Macclesfield, all 504 pages of this small-format manuscript are gorgeously illuminated with miniatures, historiated and zoomorphic initials, drolleries, and other décor in the margins. It is also one of the most exciting discoveries from the world of illuminated manuscripts in living memory: made ca. 1330–40, it was discovered at the beginning of the 21st century in the library of Shirburn Castle where it must have been for several centuries. In addition to containing the Book of Psalms, the manuscript also has a calendar and various prayer texts such as the Office of the Dead. It appears to have been created for the private use of a young nobleman who is depicted at the beginning of the Confession prayer. The 352-page facsimile edition contains 347 colored images from the original manuscript along with an explanatory commentary.

Macclesfield Psalter

All 504 pages of this small masterpiece of English Gothic illumination are richly adorned by masterful miniatures and historiated initials with shimmering gold or patterned backgrounds, strange and fascinating drolleries and animals in the margins, and vegetal borders with interlaced tendrils. Originating ca. 1330–40 in East Anglia, probably Norwich, this splendid Psalter was only recently rediscovered after centuries of neglect as just another codex in the library of Shirburn Castle, former seat of the Earls of Macclesfield. The image program was designed with the greatest care by the unknown artists responsible for it, making it a particularly refined example of the already impressive English Psalters produced during this period.

Rediscovered After Centuries

After laying unrecognized on a dusty shelf in the library of Shirburn Castle for centuries, the Macclesfield Psalter was discovered as the library was being catalogued for sale and was subsequently put up for auction in 2004. Although the Getty Museum in California initially had the winning bid of £1.7 million, the Psalter was banned from being exported and Cambridge University's Fitzwilliam Museum was able to match the bid and keep the Psalter in England with an £860,000 contribution from the UK Government's National Heritage Memorial Fund. After being restored and rebound, the Psalter first went on public display in 2008 and continues to be a highlight of the library’s collection today.

An East Anglian Masterpiece

The Macclesfield Psalter is a fine example of the central tradition of manuscripts from East Anglia, especially with regard to its masterful drolleries. These include fanciful creatures, hybrids, and bawdy motifs that may seem odd to the modern beholder; however, their meanings would have not only been obviously referential to its intended medieval audience but would have served as signposts that would help the reader navigate the text. Therefore, these were not randomly inserted images but were carefully selected with respect to the texts they accompany. The humorous nature of these bas-de-page scenes is considered to be a hallmark of East Anglian illumination.

A Coveted Work of Art

This magnificent manuscript has passed through many hands, which is evident from the various coats of arms that have been erased and replaced over the centuries. Although the evidence has long been lost, it is theorized that the original patron may have been John de Warenne (1286–1347), 7th Earl of Surrey and the Dominican friar who appears throughout the manuscript may have been his confessor and may have also overseen the creation of the Psalter. There are also other signs of the manuscripts frequent use before it became hidden among the stacks of the Macclesfield Library, e.g. the Devil’s face has been scratched away on one page by a former owner who was offended by his terrifying visage. Aside from the Book of Psalms, the manuscript also contains a calendar, canticles, a litany with collects, the Office of the Dead, a confession prayer, and six prayers to Christ, all attesting to its intended personal use.

Codicology

Alternative Titles
Macclesfield-Psalter
Size / Format
504 pages / 17.0 × 10.8 cm
Date
Ca. 1330–1340
Style
Language
Script
Textura
Illustrations
Full-page miniatures, historiated initials, and numerous marginalia adorn every page of the work
Content
150 psalms; the Office of the Dead
Previous Owners
Earl of Macclesfield

Available facsimile editions:
Detail Picture

Macclesfield Psalter

Humorous Marginalia

The Macclesfield Psalter is noteworthy for its extraordinarily lavish illumination, especially the hundreds of grotesques and drolleries in the margins. These marginalia have a coarse and silly character that closely resembles the comedy of Monty Python. Although there are no grotesques in this bas-de-page, it certainly captures the satirical and seemingly random comedy found throughout the manuscript: a knight dressed in pink with a gold helmet nervously draws his sword from his scabbard as he is attacked by a snail, which is observed by a red squirrel and a man climbing a tree upside down look on.

The Macclesfield Psalter
Single Page

Macclesfield Psalter

Annunciation to the Shepherds

The first people to be told of the birth of the Savior were not mighty kings but humble shepherds, as is depicted in this lavish historiated “C” initial for Psalm 97, the opening verses of which were considered prophetic of the Incarnation. One of the shepherds plays the bagpipes in celebration and is joined by an angel in the left margin playing a fiddle. The bar border incorporates bearded hybrids, the heads of women, swirling floral tendrils, and interlace patterns as well as a courting couple in the bas-de-page.

Saint Dunstan, a 10th century bishop and skilled silversmith, is depicted in the neighboring bas-de-page facing off against the Devil, who has horns coming out of his head and knees as well as a face with an elephant-like nose where his butt should be. Although the Devil’s gruesome face was intentionally rubbed out by a prudish owner at a later date, we can still see the sainted bishop twisting his nose with a pair of smith’s tongs, a reference to a popular legend originating from the late 11th century.

The Macclesfield Psalter
Facsimile Editions

#1 The Macclesfield Psalter

Macclesfield Psalter – Fitzwilliam Museum (Cambridge, United Kingdom) Facsimile Edition
Macclesfield Psalter – Fitzwilliam Museum (Cambridge, United Kingdom) Facsimile Edition Copyright Photos: Ziereis Facsimiles

Commentary: 1 volume by Stella Panayotova
Language: English
1 volume: Exact reproduction of the original document (extent, color and size) Partial reproduction of the original document as detailed as possible (scope, format, colors). The pages are represented on a larger white background. The binding may not correspond to the original or current document binding.
Price Category: € (under 1,000€)
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