The Queen Mary Psalter is one of the most extensively illustrated biblical manuscripts ever produced, containing over 1000 images. Prefacing, commenting on and embellishing the Psalms, the illustrations are famous for their artistic sophistication in both coloured drawings and paintings. Extraordinarily, it appears that all of the Psalter’s illustrations were completed by the same person, an artist who is now known as the ‘Queen Mary Master’ after this book.
The manuscript takes its name not from its original owner but from Queen Mary I (r. 1553–58), to whom it was presented in 1553 by a customs officer, Baldwin Smith, who had prevented its export from England. Although there is no heraldic or documentary evidence that the manuscript’s original patron was also royalty, the magnitude and quality of its illustrations makes an owner of such status very likely.
The Psalter is one of seven English 14th-century manuscripts to feature extensive Old Testament picture cycles (ranging from around 100 to 480 scenes). In the majority of these manuscripts, images from the book of Genesis predominate: of the 223 images in the prefatory cycle of the Queen Mary Psalter, 66 are devoted to this subject. Some events, such as those of the Fall of the Rebel Angels and of God creating the animals are given a full page each, but these larger illustrations are the exception. Most of the scenes are doubled up, two to a page, in framed registers, and below these framed drawings are written short captions in French.
The major divisions of the Psalms are marked with historiated initials in colours on gold leaf or brightly patterned backgrounds. These enlarged letters contain illustrations relating to the life of King David, the author of the Psalms according to biblical tradition. In addition, an extensive cycle of figurative decoration is presented in the lower margins of the manuscript page, below the Psalter text and the prayers that follow. The images begin on the second text page of the Psalms, and run continuously for 464 pages. Their subjects are extremely varied. They include the Miracles of the Virgin, portraits of martyred saints, and depictions of the lives of Sts Thomas Becket (b. c. 1119, d. 1170) and Mary Magdalene, as well as illustrations of animals and musicians and pursuits such as hunting and hawking. Collectively, the astonishing breadth and beauty of the drawings and paintings create a moving evocation of the world, both sacred and secular.
What can this book tell us about life in the Middle Ages?
Many of the illustrations in this Psalter depict everyday life in rural England, and reveal much about medieval life and medieval hunting techniques in particular. In one illustration, for example, we see two men beating oak trees with clubs in order to knock down the acorns to feed their pigs. In another we see medieval peasant women hunting rabbits using ferrets and nets.
Many of the images, in fact, reference women, including images of childbirth, mothers with their children, and many of the female biblical characters and saints. In part, because of this, many believe the original patron would have been a woman, the most likely candidate being Queen Isabella of France, Queen of England and consort of Edward II.
View images of the entire manuscripts via our Digitised Manuscripts website.