A Folio Society limited edition
A medieval masterpiece, presented in facsimile with a new commentary.
One of the first true masterpieces of medieval manuscript illumination, The Winchester Psalter is a jewel of the collection amassed by the great antiquarian Sir Robert Cotton (1570–1631), which formed the basis of the British Library. This 12th-century manuscript is justly famous for the cycle of miniatures depicting scenes from the Old Testament, the lives of Christ and the Virgin Mary, and the Second Coming and Last Judgement, which precede the text of the Book of Psalms. Inspiring, edifying and terrifying in equal measure, the miniatures of The Winchester Psalter represent the pinnacle of English Romanesque manuscript illumination.
Solander presentation box
The Psalms played a central role in the public and private lives of Christians in the Middle Ages – in daily prayer meetings and in the liturgy of the Mass and the Divine Office, as well as in private prayer and study – and they were extensively copied as a separate book. By the time The Winchester Psalter was written and illuminated around the middle of the 12th century, glosses were widely available to clergy and laity alike, and the Psalms had become a primer for children learning Latin as well as a key devotional and penitential text for Christians of all ages. Drawing on a tradition from Anglo-Saxon England, psalters of this period included an extended pictorial preface in which imagery supplemented the moral message of the text. In The Winchester Psalter this is deployed to extraordinary effect.
The cycle of miniatures in The Winchester Psalter is essentially a visual guide to salvation, providing the reader with clear models of good and evil and their reward and punishment. The scene of Christ’s betrayal (folio 21) is an arresting example of this morally charged art, as the tall, handsome and distinctly Byzantine figure of Christ bends back to receive the kiss of Judas, while this central pair are flanked by a group of sinister figures, whose beak-like noses and sharp fangs recall the grotesque depiction of the devil in the earlier Temptation scenes (folio 18). The intense characterisation of the struggle between good and evil in these images – the work of an anonymous miniaturist associated with the scriptorium of Bury St Edmunds – reaches a stunning crescendo in the Apocalypse scenes of the last nine folios in the cycle, culminating in the famous final miniature of the angel locking the damned in Hell (folio 39). The bodies of the damned – including some clergymen among the laity and royalty – are impossibly twisted and seem to float in a space lacking gravity, cut off forever from the world they have lost, tortured by grinning demons while the angel serenely despatches them for eternity. For an audience which believed literally in the Day of Judgement this scene is at once a beguiling and devastating climax. Never had the terrors of Hell seemed so immediate.
The angel locks the damned in Hell folio 39.
All quotes are by Kristine Edmondson Haney.
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Review by CarrierGreg on 8th Jun 2015
"This book is a magnificent facsimile of the full pictorial cycle of the Winchester Psalter. It does not include the text of the psalter itself. The revised commentary volume (originally issued in the ..." [read more]