With Five Large Historiated Initials, all Shimmering with Gold


(Rhineland or England[?]: ca. 1260). 176 x 129 mm. (7 x 5"). Double column on recto, single column on verso, 20 lines in a bold gothic book hand.

With 11 line fillers in red and blue penwork, five of them heightened with burnished gold, 20 one-line initials in red, blue, or burnished gold with contrasting penwork and WITH FIVE THREE- TO FIVE-LINE HISTORIATED INITIALS DEPICTING A QUEEN, A LAYMAN, A PRIEST, AND TWO MONKS, in shades of blue, pink, red, brown, yellow, and white, ALL ON A GROUND OF THICK BURNISHED GOLD, two of the initials with marginal extensions in colors and gold. Residue of glue (from mounting) along one vertical edge, some slight erosion in the white paint of two of the faces, otherwise a very desirable leaf in fine condition, the vellum bright and smooth, and the glistening gold with a memorable patina.

From a manuscript with considerable ongoing scholarly interest, this highly desirable and unusual leaf contains a total of five large historiated initials, the burnished gold as bright as one can hope to find. This item was previously sold at Sotheby's in 2015, and the catalogue entry notes that both the present leaf and its parent manuscript are extraordinary in a number of ways: "It is exceptionally rare for a Psalter to have an historiated initial to every psalm and prayer, and in this case they are exceptionally large: the almost invariable format is to have one-line initials for each verse, two-line initials for each psalm, and larger initials only for the eight major divisions at Pss.1, 26, 38, etc. This was therefore a commission of remarkable lavishness, made for a woman of great wealth, perhaps even royalty." It seems appropriate, then, that "the first initial on the present leaf shows a woman wearing a crown and a vair[fur]-lined robe, holding a book." Thanks to previous academic research, we know that "the parent volume was made for a nun, as indicated by a collect mentioning 'our abbess.' The place of origin has never been settled, previous attributions include England, Flanders, Eastern France, Lower Lorraine, and the Rhineland." Although Sotheby's experts believe it more likely to be the last of these locations, other scholars have argued for English provenance based on the historiated initial on the leaf opening Psalm 51, which certainly appears to contain the most English of subject matter: the murder of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket.

Keywords: Psalter-Hours