The Psalter-Hours of Isabelle of France

France, Paris
c. 1265-1270
MS 300

The manuscript is an important witness to the dynastic concerns and exemplary piety of Louis IX, also known as St Louis, and his family. Devout kingship and rightful succession are among the main themes of the illustrative programme. The volume is one of the first examples of a new type of devotional book – the Psalter-Hours. It is also among the earliest manuscripts to employ the expanding palette and painterly modelling of draperies first observed in Parisian manuscripts in the 1260s.

Despite being damaged in a flood in the mid-19th century, this manuscript played an important role in the renewed appreciation for medieval art during the Gothic Revival. One of its most passionate advocates, John Ruskin, acquired the volume in 1854 and considered it ‘the greatest treasure’ in his life. He used it for teaching and gave away some of its leaves in order to educate and inspire others about Gothic art.

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Four main artists painted the miniatures and historiated initials, each working on a separate part of the manuscript. At least four assistants provided the ornamentation throughout. One of the main artists and at least one of the assistants also contributed to the illumination of the Psalter of St Louis (Paris, BnF, MS lat. 10525). The two manuscripts were made in tandem. They share size, page layout, style and heraldic ornament as well as texts and images for the Calendar and the Psalms. None of the illuminators involved in them have been identified in other volumes. The St Louis Psalter and Isabelle’s Psalter-Hours are the earliest Parisian manuscripts to employ a broader, more nuanced palette and an innovative, three-dimensional modelling of draperies. These developments reveal the artists’ technical expertise and awareness of other media, notably sculpture, wall painting and stained glass.

The manuscript was made for a female member of the French royal family and was still in the royal collection during the reign of Charles V (1364-1380). By the 19th century it belonged to the London dealer John Boykett Jarman (1782-1864) and suffered water damage when his collection was flooded in 1846. It was purchased from him by John Ruskin (1819-1900) on 24 February 1854 and sold by Ruskin’s heir to Henry Yates Thompson (1838-1929) in 1904. It was purchased from him for the Fitzwilliam Museum with subscriptions from members of Cambridge University in 1919.

This volume exemplifies a 13th-century hybrid, the Psalter-Hours. Combining the 150 Psalms of the Old Testament with the main texts of Books of Hours (the Hours of the Virgin, the Penitential Psalms, the Office of the Dead and prayers to saints), it provided its original owner with a comprehensive book for private devotion. In addition, the volume contains collects, sermons and lessons for the Nativity of the Virgin, Annunciation, Purification and Assumption, and readings from the Song of Songs. Following the prefatory miniatures and the full-page initial for Psalm 1, all major text divisions open with large historiated initials painted against highly burnished gold grounds. Similar initials, now lost, most probably introduced the Penitential Psalms and the Office of the Dead. The manuscript has extensive ornamentation on every page (see Artists, Assistants).

The palette typical of 13th-century Parisian manuscripts, dominated by dark blue, salmon pink, orange-red and green, is enriched with additional colours in this volume. The artists added lead white in variable amounts to ultramarine, red dyes, red lead and verdigris in order to obtain more nuanced shades of blue, green and pink. They also used mixtures to achieve grey, brown and violet hues. Brown areas, for example, were painted with a complex mixture containing indigo, red lead, an organic red and possibly lead white. A red dye, mixed with gypsum, provided the ‘rusty’ red colour used for many draperies, and for the roundels and quadrilobes in the lower border of fols. Iv-VIr. Indigo was used mainly to paint blue folds over blue and ‘rusty’ red draperies. Vermilion, used for the rubrics, did not feature in the palette of Hand A, but was employed sparingly by the remaining artists. This is one of a few material differences in what is otherwise a very homogeneous palette.

The illuminators who contributed to the decoration of this volume employed similar painting techniques, but slight differences were observed in their modelling of draperies and flesh tones.