Current time:0:00Total duration:8:13

The Utrecht Psalter and its influence

Video transcript

(relaxing piano music) - [Beth] We're in the British Library, very fortunate to be looking at the Utrecht Psalter. It's especially fascinating today in this Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition to see this book near other manuscripts that it influenced. - [Kathleen] I'm tremendously excited to conclude the exhibition with the extraordinary Utrecht Psalter and two of its early copies. It was made in France during the reign of Louis the Pious. So, in the early 9th century. - [Beth] We're referring to the time when Charlemagne and his successors ruled much of Europe. - [Kathleen] And this must be one of the most elaborate and creative and interesting manuscripts ever made. - [Beth] We may be used to seeing manuscript eliminations where you have, for example, an evangelist page a page that introduces the text of manuscript. But here what's so wonderful about The Utrecht Psalter is that we have these illustrations that tie very tightly to the text and really bring it alive. - [Kathleen] It's revolutionary approach. Every psalm gets it's own, it's almost like a comic strip kind of layout. This horizontal register of images and this is a combination of quite literal depictions of a word of phrase in the relevant psalm and also, a more Christological interpretation. An understanding of the psalms as a prefiguration of Christ's life, death, and resurection. For example, at the bottom of this page you see a man who's touching his lips and he's holding a cup. And this refers to a phrase in the psalm which says: the Lord is my inheritance and my cup so it's very direct picking up of that phrase, but other images are much more interpretive. We have a man leaning down to pull two figures out of a hole. This is probably the harrowing of hell, Christ rescuing Adam and Eve. And comes from another verse in the psalm. That verse is: because thou wilt not leave my soul in hell. - [Beth] So what we're seeing here is this old testament, this Jewish Bible psalm interpreted in the light of Christianity, of Christ's descent into hell and bringing out souls from hell including those of Adam and Eve. And what I love especially about these illustrations is these lovely fluid lines that have a lot of energy, but they're also very expressive of human emotion. And so Adam and Eve reaching up to Christ to save them from the mouth of hell or, one of my favorites, is in pslams 13 one of the lines is: you have confounded the counsel of the poor man. And we see what looks like a woman with smaller figures, perhaps children and a sense of their being neglected. They seem in need of pity and sympathy, which the woman in front of them is pleading with the ruler to provide to them, but he is involved in evil and we see those serpents twining around the canopy that he sits under and the violence around him. These are people who are not listening to the word of God. And we see God above them surrounded by angels. - [Kathleen] This agitated, gestural, very emotional, as you say, style had an incredible impact on the art of Anglo-Saxon England which is why it's in the exhibition. And we can see the influence of this in the book that's placed right next to it. The Harley Psalter. The figures and what they're doing, the way they look is exactly the same. Almost an exact copy of the Utrecht Psalter. So this is the evidence that that earlier book was in England by around the year 1000 when this book was made, however, there's an immediate difference. - [Beth] Ink in different colors. - [Kathleen] Right. So we've gone from the text in all capitols in the earlier book and all of the illustrations have this very delicate ink line drawing, but the ink was all black. Here it's been enlivened and the ink is in red, green, blue and it transforms how it looks on the page. - [Beth] And we see again that kind of fluttering drapery. - [Kathleen] Exactly - [Beth] And the enlarged hands which are very expressive. So we can really read the story. - [Kathleen] They're very sophisticated books as you've just articulated, some of the visual commentary on the psalms are quite complicated. Moreover, we've got a change in the actual text itself. By tradition, Saint Jerome, working at the behest of the pope, made 3 translations of the psalms into Latin. The first one is the version that's here in the Harley Psalter, which is known as the Roman version because it was adopted by the church in Rome. It was, in the Anglo-Saxon period, the version that most often occurred in English Psalters. In contrast the Utrecht Psalter has the Gallican version that was adopted in Gaul. In the Eadwine Psalter, we've moved another century later. Here 3 versions appear in parallel columns so the Gallicanum, the Roman, and the Hebraicum, but moreover, you've got two more versions in the column closest to the gutter, you have little translations of the Latin words written in Anglo-Norman French. So this is the language ,after the Norman Conquest, of the new aristocracy. Next to it, above the Romanum version, you have little words in old English. This is the language of the old aristocracy. And then all around are words and phrases and marginal glosses, which is a Latin commentary explaining, in many cases, the Christological understanding of the psalms. So this is a extraordinarily complex book. - [Beth] Although we see a lot of similarities to the earlier illustrations, we do see some differences here. - [Kathleen] This is a much bigger book. So pslam 14, instead of taking half a page, takes a whole page and a half. So on this one, you only get one illustration. It's colored, it's line drawings, but we're seeing them move into, what we sometimes refer to, as Romanesque art. The fluttering draperies you mentioned, they're gone. Everything's straight, it's linear, it's more patterned, It's more static. The illustration has been put in a box so it's separated from the text. We're entering into, again, a different aesthetic, but again, faithfully, keeping the sort of details that man holding his cup, Christ reaching down to rescue Adam and Eve, every time I come in and look at the details I see something new. - [Beth] What a treat to see these 3 manuscripts side by side here in this remarkable exhibition of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in the British Library. It's really wonderful to be here. - [Kathleen] Thank you. (piano music playing)