University of Glasgow


Part of the Library and University Services

Please note that these pages are from our old (pre-2010) website; the presentation of these pages may now appear outdated and may not always comply with current accessibility guidelines.


Book of the Month

May 2007

The Hunterian Psalter

  England: c. 1170 
Sp Coll MS Hunter U.3.2 (229)

Our book of the month for May is the Hunterian Psalter, one of Glasgow University's greatest treasures. This gloriously illuminated twelfth century manuscript will be on display for a four month period from the 23rd May* as part of a new exhibition in the Hunterian Museum devoted to the life and work of William Hunter.

folio 3r: detail from calendar page for May (hawking)

One of a small group of elaborately illuminated English psalters produced in the Twelfth Century, this manuscript is a splendid example of Romanesque book art.

It begins with an illustrated calendar. A luxurious and expensive opening, each month has an historiated 'KL' (for 'Kalendae', the first day of each month) depicting a scene appropriate to that month. These traditional 'labours of the month' are beautifully conceived and executed, although unfortunately rather severely trimmed at the top - probably the result of the book being unsympathetically rebound at some point in its history. The illustration for May is shown to the left. It depicts a mounted gentleman hawking: he is emerging from the gate of his castle with a bird of prey on his right hand; his quarry, a wild duck, is shown flying towards the margin of the page.

folio 6v: calendar page for December
(historiated initial depicting feasting and the zodiacal sign of Capricorn)

The zodiac sign for each month is also exquisitely illustrated in a roundel lower down every calendar page. Notable saints' days are listed using a hierarchy of coloured inks, with special feasts marked out in red.

folio 3v: detail from calendar page for June
(zodiacal sign for Cancer)

Frustratingly, very little is known about where, when and for whom this magnificent manuscript was originally produced. It is generally dated to between 1150 and 1170. The calendar page for December perhaps offers a clue to confirm this suggestion: the fact that there is no mention of the feast of Thomas ā Becket on 29 December probably indicates that the book was made before his canonisation in 1173.

folio 3v: detail from calendar page for June
(historiated initial depicting workers cutting clover)

The illustration continues with thirteen glorious full page miniatures. The practice of prefacing psalters with series of illustrations is found in England from the Eleventh Century onwards. This sequence emphasises the history of salvation: for its original owner, these pictures had a didactic purpose, being a preparation for reading the text of the Psalms in an appropriately devotional manner. As Jonathan Greenland puts it, illuminated psalters 'were intended to open the surface of the psalms for further enquiry, even revelation. The pictures ... are a visual tool for helping the reader to a better understanding of the written word and God.'

The series begins with three pages of scenes from the Old Testament. The first of these is shown to the right: the creation of Adam in the top compartment and the temptation of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden in the lower compartment. The fanciful, club shaped vegetation is typical of Romanesque painting. The overall style of the illustration is known as 'damp-fold', so called because the fabric of any clothing depicted has a clinging quality, adhering closely to the body as if it were wet. Ultimately influenced by Byzantine art, damp-fold was popular in English art from the 1130s onwards. The Hunterian artists were late exponents of this style. According to Greenland, they pursued it to such a degree that the 'figures appear highly mannered and entirely unique'. Kauffman comments that the figures represent 'a more rigid and stylized version of the mid-century damp-fold convention. Elongated and stiff with long faces and staring eyes, these figures are silhouetted against a tooled gold background. Compared to the figures in, for example, the Bury Bible and the Winchester Bible, they are somewhat lacking in sophistication, and yet they are among the most expressive' in English Romanesque art.

The incised backgrounds of burnished gold leaf over gesso are the earliest English manifestations of this decorative technique. A complicated procedure copied from Continental work, the incised patterns are different on each page.

folio 7v: miniature depicting the creation of Adam (top compartment)
and the temptation of Adam and Eve in Eden (lower compartment)

folio 8r: miniature depicting the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden (top compartment)
and their subsequent labours (lower compartment)

folio 9v: miniatures depicting the sacrifice of Isaac

On the final page of the Old Testament sequence we see God ordering Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac. Although the sacrifice of Isaac was a common image in twelfth century English art, the two pictures illustrating this story are interesting iconographically: the top compartment has the earliest example of God as represented by an angel (according to Genesis, God spoke directly to Abraham) while the lower compartment is unparalleled for depicting Isaac's hands as unbound, again contrary to the account in Genesis.

It is not known where the Psalter was produced, although one suggestion is that it might have been made in a scriptorium in the South East of England, such as Canterbury. Analysis of the miniatures and decorative initials indicates that a number of artists were involved in its creation. However, although exhibiting individual characteristics, the miniatures do share stylistic conventions. One hypothesis is that there were several assistants who worked very closely with a master on the manuscript; but another suggestion is that it is in fact the work of one artist who was influenced by different models. Certainly it must have been produced in a place where the artist/s had access to a variety of illustrated sources and prototypes, perhaps in an extensive library. The overall feeling of the experts who have examined its artwork is that it was probably not a monastic production, but more likely to have been made by professional - perhaps even itinerant - craftsmen.

There are close similarities between the Hunterian Psalter and another surviving English psalter now in the Royal Library at Copenhagen (MS. Thott 143). Shared features include the style of script and the text, including the calendar entries. There are also strong links between various historiated initials used throughout both works. Patricia Stirnemann has examined both manuscripts in great detail; she concluded that they were probably produced in the same scriptorium with access to the same models, but without employing the same artists. She suggests that they could have been produced simultaneously, resulting in a degree of cross influence.

folio 11v: miniatures depicting the third temptation of Christ (upper compartment) and the raising of Lazarus (lower compartment)

There are six full pages of illustrations from the New Testament. There are possibly leaves missing between the scenes of Christ's ministry and those depicting post-Resurrection events. In rebinding the manuscript in 1983, Nicholas Pickwoad found some evidence for this. The missing leaves were likely to have shown the Passion of Christ.

There is some disagreement as to the identification of the scene shown in the lower compartment to the right. Boase says that it depicts Christ saving Peter after his attempt to walk on water. Chronologically, this does not make sense as it appears in the post-Resurrection sequence. But Boase argues that it dovetails with the picture above of doubting Thomas as these are both incidents dealing with lack of faith on the part of an Apostle. However, it is more likely to show Peter having cast himself in to the sea to follow Christ after he showed himself to the disciples fishing on the sea of Tiberias, an event recorded in John XXI. As Boase points out, the incidents portrayed on single pages were carefully planned 'as one balancing design' - for example, here the falling movement of St Thomas is exactly echoed by that of St Peter below.

folio 13v: miniatures depicting doubting Thomas (upper compartment) and Peter reaching out for Christ on the sea of Tiberias (lower compartment)

The most extraordinary full page miniatures in the Psalter are three that form a cycle that deals with the death and Assumption of the Virgin. Outside the standard repertoire of biblical themes used in illustration, these are of great iconographical interest and demonstrate the development of the cult of the Virgin in England in the Twelfth Century.

folio 17v: detail from  miniature depicting the Annunciation of the death of Mary

folio 18r: miniatures depicting the announcement of Mary's death (the Dormition: upper compartment) and Mary's funeral procession (lower compartment)

That on the left shows Christ blessing Mary on her death bed; her funeral procession is below. Three Jewish elders stand to the left, the chief of whom - according to the apocryphal work the De Transitu - tries to overturn the funeral bier; as a punishment for this act of desecration, his hands cleave to the bier only to be released by Saint Peter on his conversion to Christianity.

The illustration of the entombment and bodily assumption of the completely enshrouded Virgin, borne aloft by fourteen angels, is not found in any other iconographical source. The question as to whether Mary was assumed bodily and reunited with her soul in heaven, or body and soul together, was a subject of intense theological debate in the Twelfth Century. This image, which unambiguously depicts the bearing aloft of a corpse, may form part of the polemic. It has been linked to a vision experienced by a twelfth-century German Benedictine nun, Elizabeth of Schönau (d. 1164), and also to the writings of Honorius of Autun (d. c.1156).

folio 19v: full page miniature depicting Mary's assumption into heaven

folio 21v: full page miniature depicting David tuning his harp

folio 22r: full page miniature incorporating Beatus Initial

The sequence of full page illustrations ends with a fabulous double page opening. To the left there is a portrait of King David, the traditional author of the Psalms, tuning his harp. This illustration is famed for its detailed depiction of various medieval musical instruments. At the top, there are fifteen handbells hanging from a white bar (on which are written the ascending and descending musical notes ut re mi fa sol la fa mi la sol fa mi re ut) being struck by two men balanced on a platform; beneath David's footstool, a man plays on a vielle or bowed lyra, and two children a triple pipe and what is possibly a bagpipe; a figure to the right plays on a larger lyra da gamba; in the roundel to the left two musicians play on hand bells and a psaltery; in the roundel to the right is the first extant depiction of an organistrum being played, operated by two people.  Opposite is an intricately decorated initial 'B' inhabited by nude figures and grotesques, with medallions representing angels at the corners. This marks the start of the text of the psalms 'BEATVS UIR' ('Blessed is the man').
Although there are no further full page miniatures in the manuscript, the text of the psalter is richly decorated throughout, with beautiful historiated or decorated initials at the beginning of each Psalm, and gilt letters for every verse. As a consequence, each page glitters brilliantly. This unstinting use of gold and elaborate decoration is the mark of a truly luxurious product. Great care was obviously also taken in choosing good quality vellum for the book. Extending to over two hundred leaves, the heavy calf vellum used has been carefully selected to avoid skin from the extremities of the hide, thus avoiding imperfections such as flay holes.

The text itself is beautifully written in one hand. The script employed is an upright English proto-gothic book hand; the shift from English Caroline script can be seen in the slightly oval shape of 'o' letter forms, with lozenge shaped thickening at the tops of minims.

folios 120v-121r: double page opening with historiated initial B (psalm 91)
and historiated initial D depicting a man astride a goat (psalm 92)

folio 125v: inhabited initial C (psalm 97)

Until the late Thirteenth Century, the Psalter (or Book of Psalms) was almost the only liturgical book used by the laity for private devotion. It was supplanted by the Book of Hours. The core text consists of 150 songs/psalms. Originally composed in Hebrew, these have traditionally been ascribed to King David; in reality, they were compiled at some time in the second century BC from a variety of distinct sources. Saint Jerome prepared three different versions of the Psalter in the Fourth Century: the Romanum (a revision of the old Latin Psalter from the Septuagint), the Hebraecum (a direct translation from the Hebrew which never received any ecclesiastical sanction) and the Gallicanum (so called due to its early popularity in Gaul) which improves on the Romanum by being based on the Hexapla, the comparative text of the Bible produced by the scholar Origen.

This Psalter is a copy of the Gallicanum version of the Vulgate text. It is divided in to ten parts, and, as is the case with most illuminated psalters, there are particularly large and elaborate decorative initials found at the main divisions: Psalm 1: Beatus Vir ('Blessed is the man who does not guide his steps by ill counsel': in this manuscript the full page 'B' illustrated above), Psalm 26: Dominus illuminatio ('The Lord is my light and my deliverance'), Psalm 38: Dixi custodiam ('It was my resolve to live watchfully, and never use my tongue amiss'), Psalm 51: Quid gloriaris ('Wilt thou take pride, tyrant, in thy own malice, in thy own ill-doing'); Psalm 52: Dixit insipiens ('There is no God above us, is the thought of reckless hearts'); Psalm 68: Salvum me fac, Deus ('O God, save me'); Psalm 80: Exultate deo ('Rejoice we all in honour of the God who aids us'); Psalm 97: Cantate domino ('Sing the Lord a new song': shown to the left): Psalm 101: Domine exaudit ('O Lord, hear my prayer, and let my cry come unto thee'): and Psalm 109: Dixit dominus domino meo ('To the master I serve the Lord's promise was given'). The folio containing the initial for Psalm 69 is actually missing from the manuscript: it was probably plundered for the sake of the illuminated 'S' that almost certainly would have been incorporated in to the decorative scheme.

folio 46r: historiated initial D depicting Samuel anointing David (psalm 26)

A variety of inventive artistic approaches were used in composing the illuminated initials.

Some are purely decorative. Some of those incorporating scenes (i.e.. 'historiated'),  however, are connected to the Psalms that they accompany. That shown to the left, for example, depicts Samuel anointing and crowning King David. It is an interpretation of the Psalter commentary of Psalm 26 being 'a psalm of David before he was anointed'.

folio 61v: decorated initial D (psalm 38)

A few are made up of scenes that are literal translations of the text. For example, the 'Q' beginning Psalm 90 (to the right) shows Christ trampling upon a lion and dragon to illustrate the verse 'Thou shalt tread safely on asp and adder, crush lion and serpent under thy feet'.

According to Jane Hetherington Brown, this combination of initial devices incorporating scenes from the life of David, verse or word illustration and whimsical characters is not seen in English psalters before this. This mixture of types of psalm illustration is found in some North Eastern French psalter commentaries from this period, however, so it is possible that the initials found in the Hunterian Psalter again reflect a continental model in its production.

folio 119v: historiated initial Q depicting Christ trampling on a lion and dragon (psalm 90)

folio 94r: historiated initial D depicting a nimbed woman suckling two men (psalm 71)

Some of the images are difficult to interpret. The 'D' of Psalm 71 (to the left) contains a nimbed woman suckling two men. Hetherington Brown suggests that this may represent Holy Wisdom/Ecclesia nourishing both the regular and secular orders.

folio 101r: historiated initial A depicting
 a centaur spearing a man (psalm 77)

folio 118r:  historiated initial D depicting a mermaid emerging from her tail (psalm 89)

While most of the decoration retains its original luminosity and vivid colour, there is occasionally some cracking to the gold leaf and flaking of paint. To the right, the pink bole (which was added to the foundation of gesso before the gold was applied) can be seen.


folio 88r: historiated initial E depicting an ass
 playing a harp to a goat (psalm 67)

folio 127v: historiated initial M incorporating
Christ and [possibly] David (psalm 100)

folio 82r: historiated initial D incorporating a man, dog and monkeys (psalm 59)

folio 118r: detail from historiated initial D depicting a mermaid emerging from her tail (psalm 89)

The identity of the undoubtedly wealthy patron who must have commissioned this lavish manuscript is unknown. At one time known as the 'York' Psalter, it has traditionally been ascribed a northern provenance. The basis for this lies in the number of northern saints found in the calendar and litany: St Cuthbert (20 March), Wilfrid (24 April), John of Beverley (7 May), and Oswald (5 August). Most of these are actually national saints, but John of Beverley (Archbishop of York, d. 721) occurs rarely outside northern manuscripts and the appearance of Paulinus (Bishop of York, d 644) in the Litany supports the argument for a northern origin. York is a reasonable attribution but there is no firm evidence for it; Nottinghamshire and Lincoln have also been suggested as contenders, based on analysis of the prayers, Biblical canticles and other liturgical texts included.

folio 3r: detail from calendar page for May showing entry for John of Beverley

folio 176r: inhabited initial incorporating a lion and
 a monkey holding a mirror (psalm 142)

Three commemorations for St Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, are also noteworthy. This, allied with the absence of the translation of St Benedict, suggests that the manuscript may have been produced to be used in a house of Augustinian Canons or by an individual connected with that order. The cycle of Virgin illuminations could support this link with Augustinian use as several events that took place at sites served by Augustinian canons are depicted; for example, the Church of Santa Maria in Mount Sion - reputed to be the site of Mary's death - was an Augustinian house. Meanwhile, the prominence of hermit saints mentioned could indicate that the book may have been made for a reclusive.

Although we really have no idea for whom the manuscript was originally made, in his thesis on the work, Jonathan Greenland argues that it may possibly have been Roger de Mowbray (d.1188), a Yorkshire magnate. From one of the greatest Anglo-Norman families of the Twelfth Century, he had been a crusader who was also a notable religious benefactor: by the end of  his life he had founded more than thirty mainly Augustinian and Cistercian monasteries and nunneries, including the Augustinian house of Newburgh near to his castle in Thirsk.

Returning to the sequence of Virgin miniatures which make this manuscript so unique, it is known that the issue of the Assumption was fiercely debated in northern England at the time of the Psalter's production. In Yorkshire, for example, William of Newburgh composed a commentary on the Song of Songs at the request of his friend Roger, the Cistercian abbot of Byland (1142-1196), another monastery founded by de Mowbray; in this work he fully supported the corporal Assumption. Intriguingly, Bridlington Priory (founded by de Mowbray's father-in-law, Walter de Gant) has a sculpture which has been stylistically linked to the manuscript. Bridlington was a reputed centre of learning in the Twelfth Century; its Prior, Robert of Bridlington (1147-1165), wrote many theological works and had access to an extensive library.

folios 200v-201r: double page opening from the litany of saints

Although it may be stretching the hypothesis, it is possible that the various scenes of life on a seigneurial estate shown in the Calendar depict that of Roger. And could the mailed crusader who illustrates Psalm 35 ('Disarm the enemies who rise in arms against me; grip thy weapons and thy shield') be Roger himself? His shield is emblazoned with a lion, in later years the emblem of the Mowbray family.

folio 54v: historiated initial I depicting a crusader
(psalm 34)


Sadly, we will probably never establish with certainty the exact circumstances in which the Psalter was made, although examination of the book itself does occasionally yield tantalising signs of evidence of use in the past eight hundred years. The last thirteen folios, for example, contain prayers that were added in the late Thirteenth Century. These were originally written for a female suppliant, but the Latin endings of the words have been altered by having the corresponding singular masculine forms written over them, and then, in a later hand, the plural masculine.

folio 208r: detail of page of post Twelfth Century prayers with superscript amendments

folio 210v: detail of marginalia with instructions for an amulet

There is some fascinating marginalia to be found on the last page of the book. A thirteenth century inscription appears to give instruction in Latin for the preparation and administration of an amulet for the cure of epilepsy: the amulet is to be sanctified at the altar at the Mass of the Holy Ghost and then suspended from the neck of someone afflicted with epilepsy or perhaps in danger of death. The inscription goes on to provide the words which make up the charm to be written on the amulet itself; this text is in a corrupted form of Anglo-Saxon rendering it incomprehensible but therefore, perhaps, more potent - 'an abracadabra function', as Brown and Voigts explain.

Although much of the early life of the Psalter remains a mystery, its acquisition by Glasgow University is quite clear. It came as part of William Hunter's magnificent library in 1807, along with the rest of his wonderful collections. Dr William Hunter (1718-83) was a famous anatomist and physician, and renowned collector of books, manuscripts, coins, medals, paintings, shells, minerals, and anatomical and natural history specimens. Under the terms of his will, his library and other collections remained in London for several years after his death - for the use of his nephew, Dr Matthew Baillie (1761-1823) - and arrived at the University in 1807.

Hunter's collection of books contains some 10,000 printed books and 650 manuscripts; it forms one of the finest Eighteenth Century libraries to survive intact.  Hunter acquired this volume at the sale of the library of Louis-Jean Gaignat in Paris on 10 April 1769, along with several other books. His French agent, Jean B. Dessain, bought it at the auction on Hunter's behalf for fifty livres and one sou; it was described in the sale catalogue as a 'codex pervetustus' ('an antiquated book'). Now regarded as the greatest treasure in his library, Hunter was paying three times as much for early printed books at the time.

The Psalter will be on display as part of the new exhibition Hunter: Man, Medic and Collector which opens to the public at the Hunterian Museum on 23 May - William Hunter's Birthday. The manuscript will be exhibited for a four month period, over which time several different openings will be displayed. This is a rare opportunity to see this splendid work of art.*

* Please note: the manuscript is no longer on display (the text refers to a period in 2007).


folio 174v: inhabited initial D incorporating a peacock and a dragon (psalm 140)

T. S. R. Boase The York Psalter in the library of the Hunterian Museum, Glasgow, with an introduction and notes London: Faber, 1962 Level 11 Main Lib Bibliog B162:10 1962-B & Level 12 Spec Coll Sp Coll Hunterian Add. f11

Jane Hetherington Brown & Linda Ehrsam Voigts 'University of Glasgow, Hunter MS. U.3.2, f. 210v' in Old English Newsletter 14/1 pp. 12-13 Level 9 Mod Lang Pers

Jonathan James Greenland The iconography of the Hunterian Psalter University of Glasgow, MS Hunter 229 Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Cambridge 1996

C.M. Kauffmann A survey of manuscripts illuminated in the British Isles. Vol.3, Romanesque manuscripts, 1066-1190 (No. 95, pp. 117-118) General editor J.J.G. Alexander London: Harvey Miller, 1975 Level 11 Bibliog qB162:10 1975-S Vol 3

Patricia Danz Stirnemann The Copenhagen psalter Unpublished PhD thesis, Columbia University 1976 Photocopy at Sp Coll Hunterian Add. q79

Edited by Nigel Thorpe The Hunterian Psalter: Glasgow University Library MS. Hunter 229: with two introductory essays by Jane Hetherington Brown and Nicholas Pickwoad Oxford: Oxford Microform Publications for Glasgow University Library, 1983 Sp Coll Hunterian Add. 111 & Level 11 Bibliog B162:10

John Young, continued and completed  by P. Henderson Aitken A catalogue of the manuscripts in the Library of the Hunterian Museum in the University of Glasgow Glasgow: Maclehose, 1908 Level 11 Bibliog D90-G 1908-Y & Sp Coll Hunterian Add. f61 etc; with updated entry on web manuscripts catalogue.

NB. There is a full bibliography of works/articles written on the Psalter on the web manuscripts catalogue record.


Return to main Special Collections Exhibition Page
Go to Book of the Month Archive

Julie Gardham May 2007