Peterborough Psalter in Brussels

Ms. 9961-62 - Bibliothèque Royale de Belgique (Bruxelles, Belgium)

Alternate Titles:

Peterborough-Psalter, Psautier de Peterborough

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Alternate Titles

Psautier de Peterborough

Extent / Format

282 pages / 30.0 x 19.5 cm

Around 1300
Artist / School

Unkonown professional secular workshop


116 miniatures framed in gold, 24 calendar medallions, 10 large (eight- to eleven-line) historiated initials surrounded by decorative scenic borders and smaller initials

Former owners

Geoffrey of Crowland, abbot of Peterborough Abbey
Pope John XXII
Clementia of Hungary, the Queen Dowager of France
Philip VI
Charles V
Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy
Philip II, King of Spain
Napoleon Bonaparte

Short description

The Peterborough Psalter was commissioned around 1300 by the abbot of the English Benedictine monastery at Peterborough. The work contains magnificently colored miniatures and historiated initials, as well as valuable gold decoration on each page. As a matter of fact, the text of the codex is written in script alternating between gold and azure, something singular in the history of Gothic manuscripts. Famous people such as Charles V and Napoleon owned this special work and furnished it with their own seigniorial symbols.

Facsimile editions available


Peterborough Psalter in Brussels

A collection of Psalms meant for use in daily mass was created for the Benedictine abbey of Peterborough around 1300. This psalter is probably the most thrilling example of a Gothic prayer book. The Peterborough Psalter in Brussels contains altogether 141 pages with 116 gold bordered miniatures, 24 calendar medallions, and 10 historiated initials, which stretch across more than half a page and are decorated with scenic bordures, as well as a multitude of smaller gold initials and line decoration made from gold and colorful plant tendrils. The text of the book is consistently written in alternating gold and azure. The imagination of the book illuminator was unbounded and no other Gothic psalter is comparable with this richly furnished work.

A Work for a Great Dignitary

Originally, the richly decorated psalter was commissioned by Geoffrey of Cowland, the abbot of the Peterborough Abbey and served as the basis for the daily choral payers of the monks. Later, the codex found itself in the highest ruling houses of Europe, among them were Pope John XXII, Charles V, and Napoleon. While it was in the possession of the French Valois Dynasty, every miniature was furnished with the seigniorial symbol of the Golf Lilly. The powerful Burgundian Duke Philipp the Good had his coat-of-arms added in gold and silver. The work also gained a personal stamp from Napoleon*. His **courtly bookmaker added the current binding, which is fitted with a gilded imperial emblem.

A Unique Picture Cycle

At the time, the Peterborough Psalter was the only codex that combined scenes from the Old and New Testaments into a single picture cycle and not illustrated in separate cycles as was common. 38 depictions from the New Testament correspond with 71 miniatures of the Old Testament, as a result there are two to four events from the Old Testament assigned to each scene from the New Testament**. There are a few depictions that conspicuously illustrate worldly motifs instead of biblical scenes. A few of these worldly miniatures strongly resemble scenes from the courtly novel “Jehan et Blonde”, which was written in 1278 by the Picard author Philippe de Rémi.

Medieval Painting at the Peak of Pefection

The unusually valuable miniatures still astound their modern beholder. Every page of the codex is embellished with gold that draws attention the vibrancy of the bright colors. The miniatures, with finely patterned gold backgrounds, show slim figures with individual facial features. The depicted scenes appear vivid and realistic. Only the costliest materials and color pigments were used. The magnificent miniatures are reminiscent of painted Gothic church windows in their monumental impression.
The script of the codex was designed in an especially appealing way. The pages of text are written alternately in shimmering gold and intense azure. This particularity highlights the unmeasurably value of the work as well and makes it a unique treasure of Gothic book art.

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