This stunning 11th-century Psalter is one of the most famous manuscripts in the British Library’s collections. It is lavishly adorned with marginal illuminations on almost every page.
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.
What is special about this manuscript?
Many of the marginal illuminations depict scenes from the life of Christ, thus linking the text of the Psalms to the Gospels. The artist has also drawn on more recent events: throughout the manuscript can be found images of iconoclasts, who worked to destroy religious art in Byzantium in the 8th and 9th centuries. The depiction of these individuals as sinners suffering terrible torments in Hell is a clear rebuke by an artist of this period in Byzantine history.
It contains substantial chrysography (writing in gold), which adds to the sense that this is a high-end manuscript created for a special purpose.
The manuscript is named for its creator, Theodore, a monk from Caesarea who lived and worked at the Studios Monastery in Constantinople. Unusually, it appears that Theodore was responsible both for the script and for the illuminations. It was more common for these tasks to be completed by two (or more) individuals. Theodore produced 435 marginal illustrations that act as a commentary on the text of the Psalms.
It was made for Michael, the abbot of the monastery, in February 1066.
The manuscript was later owned by Henry Perigal Borrell of Smyrna. The British Museum acquired it at the sale of his books in 1853.
The defeat of the iconoclast?
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 show (f. 27v, digitised image 2) 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).
Explore more of this digitised manuscript here.
- Full title:
- Theodore Psalter
- 1066, Eastern Mediterranean, Constantinople [now Istanbul]
- Theodore of Caesarea (author, scribe, illustrator)
- Usage terms
Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.
- Held by
- British Library
- Add MS 19352
- Article by:
- Cillian O’Hogan
Many of the British Library’s Greek manuscripts contain beautiful illuminations. Here, Cillian O’Hogan provides a brief overview of the history of illumination in Greek manuscripts.
- Article by:
- Peter Toth
- Art, Religion
Translated into Greek in Hellenistic Egypt, the Greek Old Testament was copied widely in Byzantium. Peter Toth surveys the history of this important text.
- Article by:
- Kalliroe Linardou
- The makers of Greek manuscripts, Art, Religion
Byzantine book illumination was at its most ambitious and innovative in the decorated psalters produced between the 9th and 11th centuries. Here, Kalliroe Linardou explains the two main types of illuminated psalters and describes some of their key features.