Winchester Psalter

Winchester Psalter – The Folio Society – Cotton MS Nero C IV – British Library (London, United Kingdom)

Winchester Cathedral, Winchester (United Kingdom) — 1127–1171

An impressive Romanesque Psalter commissioned by the grandson of William the Conqueror: the stories of the Bible and the struggle of good versus evil in 38 miniatures as masterful as they are dramatic

  1. 38 first class Romanesque miniatures depict the various scenes from the Old and New Testaments

  2. The climax is a dramatic depiction of Hell with macabre demons tormenting the broken bodies of the damned

  3. The masterpiece was probably commissioned by the monk Henry de Blois, grandson of William the Conqueror (ca. 1028–87)

Winchester Psalter

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

The Winchester Psalter is counted among the highpoints of Romanesque illumination and impresses its reader with 38 fascinating miniatures, which effectively illustrate the various battles between good and evil. Likely commissioned by the monk Henry de Blois (ca. 1100–1171), the manuscript originated sometime between the mid–12th century and the second half of the 13th century in Winchester, England. The miniatures are placed before the text of the Psalms, thus supporting the moral message of the text as a visual introduction. The climax is a particularly dramatic depiction of Hell with the broken bodies of the damned, who are tormented by macabre demons.

The Winchester Psalter

The monk Henry de Blois (ca. 1100–1171) commissioned a true masterpiece of Romanesque illumination with the Winchester Psalter. The 284-page parchment manuscript originated sometime between the mid–12th century and the second half of the 13th century in Winchester, England and contains the biblical Psalms. These were of great significance for daily religious use, because the practice of devotion outside of church services through daily recitation of the Psalms was also common. The text is prefaced with 38 full-page miniatures, which impressively support the moral message of the text and serve as a visual introduction.

The Battle between Good and Evil

The 38 first class miniatures depict the various scenes from the Old and New Testaments, from the life of Jesus and the Virgin Mary to the Resurrection and Judgement Day, in a particularly dramatic fashion. The artist creatively shows the beholder the various models of good and evil and the resulting punishments. For example, the depiction of Hell is particularly horrific: the small broken bodies of the damned are tortured by big, cruel, grinning demons with tools. The Juda kiss scene is equally expressive. The painter characterizes the soldiers as horrible monsters with great mouths, sharp teeth, and long, beak-like noses. This sight makes one immediately think of the sinister figure of the devil.

Connections to the Famous Cluny Abbey in France

Actually, the patron of this breathtaking Psalter is unknown, but both the calendar, the litany, and the prayer at St. Swithun, whose remains are mentioned in the manuscript, suggest that the book is connected to Winchester. In addition, the calendar contains many festivals that lead to the influential abbey of Cluny in France. The most likely patron is Henry de Blois, the grandson of William the Conqueror. He was initially a monk in Cluny and Bishop of Winchester between 1129 and 1171. Considering his great passion for the arts, he could have ordered the fantastic manuscript for his use.


Alternative Titles
Psalter of Henry of Blois
St Swithun’s Psalter
Size / Format
284 pages / 32.3 × 23.5 cm
38 full-page miniatures; calendar miniatures (labors of the month) and medaillons; 1 historiated initial
Calendar; Psalter (Gallican); Canticles, Gloria in Excelsis; Pater Noster; Apostle's Creed; Quicunque Uult; Litany; 10 Collects; 36 Prayers; incomplete colophon
Henry of Blois, Bishop of Winchester and Abbot of Glastonbury
Previous Owners
Henry of Blois
Sir Robert Cotton

Available facsimile editions:
Winchester Psalter – The Folio Society – Cotton MS Nero C IV – British Library (London, United Kingdom)
The Folio Society – London, 2015
Limited Edition: 980 copies
Detail Picture

Winchester Psalter

Death of the Virgin Mary

Following the archetypal image from Byzantine art, the Twelve Apostles have miraculously assembled from their distant missionary activity to gather around the deathbed of the Virgin Mary. While she appears peaceful with no trace of suffering, their faces are mournful; one swings a golden censer as he stands to the left with his head hung in sorrow. The spirit of Christ stands in the background holding a baby representing the soul of his mother, reuniting them with their roles reversed. He holds her up as though he were about to pass her to the hand of God, which reaches down and makes the sign of benediction flanked by angels holding swaddling clothes.

The Winchester Psalter
Single Page

Winchester Psalter

David and Goliath

Four events happening in different times and places have been creatively condensed into two registers. In the upper register, David is shown on the left in Jerusalem, represented by an architectural frame, declining the armor offered to him by King Saul in favor of his humble staff and sling. The moment of impact when the stone strikes Goliath in the middle of his forehead is depicted on the right and his eyes are shown rolling back in his head.

Below, the host of the Israelites pursues the routing Philistines in the background while David decapitates the head of Goliath, which he then brings back to Jerusalem as a trophy to be presented to Saul. While seated and facing directly outward in the upper register, here he stands turned three-quarters of the way toward David. A horned snake’s head emerges from Saul’s robes, indicating his resentment and fear that David will supplant him.

The Winchester Psalter
Facsimile Editions

#1 The Winchester Psalter

The Folio Society – London, 2015

Publisher: The Folio Society – London, 2015
Limited Edition: 980 copies
Binding: Indian goatskin binding with gold embossing, designed by Joe McLaren
Commentary: 1 volume by Kristine Edmondson Haney
Language: English
1 volume: This facsimile is not complete. Reproduction of ff. 1-39 of the original document as detailed as possible (scope, format, colors). The binding may not correspond to the original or current document binding.
Price Category: € (under 1,000€)
Edition available
Price: Login here!
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