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Theodore Psalter

This profusely illustrated Psalms from 1066 is possibly the most significant surviving manuscript illuminated in Constantinople. It was made at a time when the anti-image movement of the iconoclasts had relatively recently been beaten down, and representational art could again flourish. The name comes from the monk who illustrated the manuscript.

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Theodor Psalter

The Theodore Psalter, Constantinople, 1066. Psalm 26 (25)
BL Add. MS 19352, f. 27v
Copyright © The British Library Board

What is a Psalter?

The Psalms are 150 ancient songs, grouped together to form one of the Old Testament books of the Bible. They were composed, according to tradition, by King David. In the Middle Ages (and down to the present day) they formed a fundamental part of Christian and Jewish worship, for ecclesiastics and lay-people alike; many people learnt to read by being taught the Psalms.

The Psalms were often written out separately from the rest of the Bible, preceded by a calendar of the Church's feast-days, and followed by various types of prayers. Such a volume is known as a Psalter.

Who commissioned it and who made it?

The Theodore Psalter illustrates important episodes and individuals from the great dispute over the role of images in Christian worship that split the church in the eleventh century. It was made for abbot Michael of the Studios monastery there, and is named after its scribe and illuminator, the monk Theodore, who came to Studios from Caesarea in Cappadocia. Working closely with the abbot, Theodore produced 435 marginal illustrations that act as a commentary on the text of the Psalms.

Map of the universe from the Theodore Psalter. The world is encircled by the ocean, with antipodes above and below, and the sun and moon at either side. The whole is encompassed by a starred firmament. (Not to scale.)

What is being shown on this page?

By the time this Psalter was made, the iconoclasts - those who interpreted the commandment against graven images to the letter and therefore destroyed any pictures or icons - had been deposed and excommunicated. In the lower margin of one page showm here, a group of prelates, one holding a long brush, are shown in the process of whitewashing an icon. It is a reference to the iconoclasts.

There had been two main iconoclastic uprisings. The first was in 713-87. The Byzantine Emperor Leo III started it off when he removed an icon of Christ from the entrance to the Palace and Constantinople and replaced it with a cross, but the period ended with the reforms of his daughter-in-law Irene, who reputedly had been keeping a few icons of her own. In 813-42, Leo V tried again, once again replacing the icon of Christ from the entrance; but once again a daughter-in-law reversed the iconoclastic stance, this time the one of Leo's successor Michael.

Sine 843 the defeat of the iconoclasts has been celebrated in Orthodox church, where the veneration of icons is central to worship, on the first Sunday in Lent as the 'Triumph of Orthodoxy'.

The iconoclasts were therefore deemed an appropriate subject for the artist's visual commentary on Psalm 26 (in modern numbering) in which the Psalmist states ' I abhor the assembly of evildoers' (Psalm 26: 5).