The Peterborough Psalter

England, Peterborough
c. 1220-1225
MS 12

Specific features of the liturgical texts and the depiction of an abbot in one of the historiated initials show that the manuscript was made for the Benedictine Abbey of Peterborough in the 1220s. Highly burnished gold grounds and crisp black outlines set off the artfully applied colours, ranging from locally sourced organic yellows to imported ultramarine.

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 .

The main artist, though anonymous like many of his contemporaries, was one of the most accomplished English illuminators of the early 13th century. He painted the 2 full-page images, the 4 historiated initials and probably the 3 large foliate initials in gold and richly saturated colours, which mark the main textual divisions. Skilled assistants would have executed the remaining ornamental initials, which are painted in a different style and in a more modest range of hues.



The manuscript was commissioned after 1220 by an abbot of Peterborough who is depicted in the initial for Psalm 101 (fol. 139v). Richard, VII Viscount Fitzwilliam of Merrion (1745-1816), acquired the manuscript in 1808 and bequeathed it to the Fitzwilliam Museum in 1816.


The manuscript contains the standard texts found in early Gothic Psalters. The 150 Psalms of the Old Testament are prefaced by a Calendar, which begins and ends with related tables, and a circular diagram (rota) used to calculate the date of Easter. The Calendar has burnished gold initials, but contains no figural decoration. After the Psalms come the biblical Canticles, the Litany and the Office of the Dead. A full-page miniature of the Crucifixion precedes the Psalter, which is divided into 10 sections for daily readings. Psalm 1 opens with a full-page initial, and 4 other Psalms marking the major text divisions have large, historiated initials. Three other ‘division’ Psalms are introduced by large, fully illuminated initials with foliate ornament. Due to the loss of folios, the large initials that would have marked Psalms 68 and 97 are missing. Red and blue penwork initials filled with foliate ornament in multicoloured washes with occasional touches of gold mark some remaining major text divisions in the Psalms, Canticles and Office of the Dead. Other major text divisions are signalled by red and blue penwork initials filled with scrolling patterns in the contrasting colour. Small red and blue penwork initials mark minor text divisions throughout the manuscript.

The colour scheme and palette are fairly homogeneous across the manuscript. Carbon black, lead white, red lead, ultramarine blue and verdigris were used on every page. An organic yellow was applied over either lead white or chalk in several different folios. Red organic dyes, likely extracted from insects, provided pink hues when mixed with gypsum, chalk and lead white. Gold leaf was used extensively, while silver was identified only on fol. 159r, where it has degraded. Some differences were observed between the two full-page illuminations (fols. 12r, 12v) and the rest of the decoration.

Lightbox: 14
Detail of the tooled gold leaf under magnification (20x). Incised lines and dots can be observed, as well as scratches, possibly from burnishing. Small losses in the gold leaf reveal the red bole underneath.
Lightbox: 15
The soldier’s pink helmet was painted with an insect-derived organic dye and gypsum, as suggested by the characteristic features which can be observed in the FORS spectrum (above): absorption bands at c. 555, 1446, 1488, 1940 and 1972 nm. This finding is confirmed by XRF (below), as peaks for potassium and aluminium (K and Al, from the alum used in the manufacture of the lake pigment), phosphorous (P, probably related to the insect origin of the dyestuff) as well as calcium and sulphur (Ca and S, from gypsum) can be observed.
Lightbox: 16
Detail of David’s draperies under magnification (20x). Thick brushstrokes of red lead provide orange highlights over an organic pink base. An organic yellow glaze is painted over a white chalk base. Carbon black outlines and lead white highlights are applied last.

Pink tones in this folio are opaque and consist of a mixture of an organic red dye and gypsum (hotspot 2). Various red dyes were available in England at this time, such as Brazilwood, madder and kermes. A variety of red and pink hues can be obtained by controlling the amount of alum added to these dyes.

The modelling of draperies is particularly dynamic in this folio. David’s mantle is modelled over a pink base layer that contains an insect-derived dye, with red lead highlights. The inner part of the mantle is painted with ultramarine blue. The tunic is modelled with a yellow glaze over a white base layer of chalk (hotspot 3). White lead highlights and thick black outlines further define the folds.