The Harley Psalter is one of the great masterpieces of late Anglo-Saxon book art. It was written and decorated at Christ Church Cathedral Priory, Canterbury during the first half of the 11th century and it is the earliest of three surviving copies of the Utrecht Psalter, a Carolingian manuscript that was housed in Canterbury from the 10th century onwards. The Utrecht Psalter and its copies represent a revolutionary approach to the illustration of the Psalms, for instead of confining the illustration to the inside of initials or to prefatory scenes from the life of David, each Psalm is interpreted in literal phrase-by-phrase drawings. The poetry of the Psalms lends itself to creative visual representations, and in these Psalters, the drawings function as a visual commentary as well as illustrating the text.
For example, in the energetic illustration of Psalm 13 on the left-hand page, ‘the Lord look down from heaven’ seated in the sky surrounded by angels, to find men fighting, whose ‘feet are swift to shed blood’ (Psalm 13. 2-3). Below to the right are those who are coming out of captivity with their arms outstretched (Psalm 13. 7). At the top of the page on the right, the Psalmist’s question ‘Lord, who shall dwell in thy tabernacle?’ (Psalm 14. 1) is illustrated by those that ‘walked without blemish’, including a man with a purse who ‘hath not put out his money to usury’ (Psalm 14. 2, 5). The lower scene on this page is the illustration for Psalm 15, with the Lord tenderly reaching down to life Adam and Eve out of hell, in an interpretation of verse 10 to the left: ‘Because thou wilt not leave my soul in hell’.
The Anglo-Saxon artists of the Harley Psalter copied its model quite faithfully, retaining its literal approach while invigorating its line drawings with colour. The arrangement and placement of the scenes, the details of the figures and the page layout of the Psalms are virtually identical to those of the Utrecht Psalter. The major difference is that the Harley Psalter uses St Jerome’s Romanum version of the Psalms, which was more common in Anglo-Saxon England than the Gallicanum version found in the Utrecht Psalter and dominant in Francia, the region of continental Europe where that book was made.
Notwithstanding the prominence of the images, there is some indication that the Harley Psalter’s complex visual interpretation of the Psalms was intended initially for a church rather than a lay audience: the initial of the first letter of the Psalms features a tonsured figure, sometimes identified as an archbishop. Although the illustrations are unfinished, the book still includes over 100 coloured line drawings, the greatest concentration in Anglo-Saxon art.