The Macclesfield Psalter

England, East Anglia, probably Norwich
c. 1330-1340
MS 1-2005

The dainty, swaying figures, sweet faces, fashionable coiffure and elegantly draped garments exemplify the courtly art that flourished in aristocratic circles on both sides of the Channel. There is a growing interest in spatial depth, volume, texture, human emotions, and the anatomically accurate rendering of the human body. The bas-de-page scenes included on every page of the manuscript display the earthy humour considered a hallmark of East Anglian illumination.

Learn more about the manuscript by exploring the sections below or selecting folios on the right. Discover further details by choosing any of the folios with the hotspot symbol .

Two main artists, working with at least one assistant, painted the entire Psalter: the Macclesfield Master and the Anointing Master.

The manuscript was commissioned for the young man who is depicted at the opening of the Confession prayer (fol. 246r). A partially erased 15th-century ownership inscription by a nun, Sister Barbara, is visible under UV light (fols. 1r, 8v). Later owners include Anthony Watson, Bishop of Chichester (1596-1605), John Smeaton, and the Earls of Macclesfield of Shirburn Castle, Oxfordshire. The Psalter was purchased at Sotheby’s, London, 22 June 2004, lot 587 by the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, but was stopped from export by the Minister of Culture on the recommendation of the Waverley Committee. It was purchased by the Fitzwilliam Museum in 2005.

The manuscript contains the book of Psalms (150 Old Testament poems), prefaced by a Calendar and a prayer. Originally, historiated initials would have marked all of the ten major Psalm divisions, but the initials for Psalms 68, 80 and 101 are lost. The Psalter text is followed by the standard set of ten Canticles, the Te Deum hymn, the Athanasian Creed, the Litany and the Office of the Dead. Most texts are conventional, apart from the Confession prayer, which is not found in other Psalters made by the same craftsmen, and is unusually detailed. The texts are framed by full or partial bar borders on burnished gold grounds. These are richly decorated with spirals of leafy vines, birds and animals, knotwork, naked figures, and fanciful creatures, especially hybrids. Medallions with 'portrait' busts and profiles are incorporated in several borders, and similar heads appear in some ornamental initials. The lower margins of almost every page feature inventive figures and scenes. The sources of these pictorial parodies, absurdities and obscenities were both verbal and visual. They range from exempla, or anecdotes used by preachers to enliven their sermons, to religious plays, secular romances, and fables that entertained courtly audiences and townsfolk alike.

The extensive decoration of this manuscript was obtained with a very homogeneous palette, which includes carbon black, lead white, red lead, azurite blue and verdigris. Organic colourants provided a range of purple, tan and pink hues. Mosaic gold was used in the majority of yellow areas, although some details such as the figures’ hair probably contain a light-coloured yellow dye.

Lightbox: 53
Detail of a light pink leaf under magnification (60x), showing the typical craquelure pattern of organic dyes. The FORS spectrum (below) shows the diagnostic features of an insect-based dye and lead white (reflectance minima at c. 525 and 560 nm, absorption bands at 1447 and 2322 nm).
Lightbox: 54
Detail of the dark pink decoration under magnification (60x), showing the typical craquelure pattern of organic dyes as well as a higher transparency and colour saturation than the light pink hue (hotspot 1). The FORS spectrum (below) shows the same diagnostic features of the insect-based dye that provides the light pink hue, but no absorption bands for lead white.
Lightbox: 55
Detail of David’s purple mantle under magnification (7.5x), showing the typical craquelure pattern of organic dyes as well as underdrawing and ruling lines, visible through the thin paint layers. The FORS spectrum (below) shows reflectance minima at c. 560 and 580 nm which suggest the presence of a different dye from the one used in pink areas, possibly to be identified as elderberry.
Lightbox: 57
The XRF spectrum of the brown writing ink allows its identification as iron-gall ink with a very high zinc (Zn) content.

The initial for Psalm 26, showing the Anointing of David, is the main contribution of the Anointing Master, named after this image. The depiction of David, chosen by God to reign as king of Israel and Judah, was ultimately inspired by the biblical heading of the Psalm which states that the young David composed it before his anointing by the prophet Samuel. The initial extends into a full foliate border, incorporating heralds playing trumpets, hybrids, and busts within medallions. The gold, red and white colours of the herald’s banner, shown in the lower margin, match the heraldic and livery colours of the earls of Arundel who were probably associated with the patron of the manuscript.

This colourful page is characterised by a variety of purple, red, tan, light and dark pink hues obtained with different organic dyes, manufactured in different ways (hotspots 1-3). A red dye was also used for the shading on the orange mantle of the figure standing on David’s left side. The writing ink was also analysed on this page, and found to be a typical iron-gall ink which however contains an unusually high amount of zinc, suggesting the use of a specific recipe (hotspot 4).