Though Queen Melisende's Psalter is probably not the earliest manuscript preserved from the Crusader Kingdom, it represents Crusading illumination of the early period at its best. From details within the psalter we know its place of origin to be the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, and we can also date it fairly accurately between 1131 and 1143.
Who was Queen Melisende?
Melisende (1105–c. 1160) was a Frankish princess. She and her husband, Fulk V of Anjou, became joint rulers of the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem in 1131. However within a year she and her husband were at war – which Melisende and her supporters won. Thereafter she became a great patron of the arts, founding an abbey at Bethany and commissioning this magnificent psalter.
After Fulk's death Melisende became regent for her 13-year old son, later Baldwin III; however she had no intention of giving up power. In 1152 Baldwin demanded that the realm be divided between mother and son. Melisende ruled Judaea and Samaria and Baldwin the north. Perhaps surprisingly, she later acted as his closest advisor.
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 made this Psalter?
This richly decorated psalter, whose original binding incorporated panels of ivory carved with scenes from the life of David, was made for Melisende in the scriptorium of the Holy Sepulchre. The survival of the ivory covers is very unusual.
The manuscript mirrors the hybrid cultural milieu of its owner, with its Latin text preceded by twenty-four images of the life of Christ painted in a style elsewhere employed to illustrate Greek manuscripts.
It was illuminated by four artists, all probably westerners but strongly influenced by contemporary Byzantine work. The painter responsible for these and other New Testament scenes signs himself 'Basilius'.
What does these pages show?
On the left of digitised image 1 is the 'harrowing of hell': the resurrected Jesus, having risen from the dead after his crucifixion, descends into hell and pulls out Adam and Eve while King David and other Old Testament figures watch.
In Greek this type of image is known as the Anastasis (the Greek word for 'resurrection' or 'to rise or stand again'). On the right of digitised image 1, Kings David and Solomon, dressed in imperial Byzantine garb, raise their hands in adoration or prayer. Above Christ, angels hold standards with the letters 'SSS' for Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus (Holy, Holy, Holy).
The shining gold background serves to emphasize the otherworldly and visionary nature of the image, and is the same as would be used for an icon.
The Psalter retains its original covers, which are carved from ivory, as can be seen here on the British Library Digitised Manuscripts. One of the artist, who signed his name 'Basilios me fecit' (Basiliosmade me) worked in a Byzantine style, as seen in the image displayed of the Ascension (digitised image 2). The Psalter also includes medallions of signs of the zodiac, full-page initials and miniatures of saints.