Medieval Manuscripts: The Great Canterbury Psalter

The Great Canterbury Psalter 

(Anglo-Catalan Psalter) Canterbury 13th Century – Barcelona 14th Century

(Lat. 8846) Preserved in Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris.

The following article is an excerpt from the commentary volume of The Great Canterbury Psalter by Rosa Alcoy (Professor of Art History at the University of Barcelona).

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Canterbury, around the year 1200

Henry II is king of England and following his marriage to Leonor of Aquitaine his dominions encompass part of France too. In 1170, Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury, has returned from his exile in France with a series of splendid manuscripts illuminated on the continent, which were to influence the style of the Christ Church scriptorium, one of the most important centres making illuminated codices in England.


At that time this workshop was a hive of activity thanks to a fascinating and ambitious project: a triple Psalter featuring the Latin, Hebrew and Gallican versions of the Psalms in addition to glosses in Anglo-Norman, a dialect stemming from the French spoken in England for three centuries following the Norman conquest, and considered to be an educated language and the one preferred by the court, the upper classes and the State.

The Canterbury workshop, in keeping with Carolingian tradition, designed a codex that combined texts and images in such an ingenious composition that it constituted, in the words of Professor Klaus Reinhardt Ph.D., a peerless masterpiece. The English artists organised the spaces allocated to text and specified the position and size of the miniatures. They copied virtually the whole text in impeccable script, there being no sign of any mistakes or corrections, and illuminated the first part of the codex.


The English masters decided to begin the psalter with daring paintings intended for an erudite audience. They created four full-page, illuminated folios that could not fail to impress the patron or anyone else privileged enough to see them. The Canterbury artists created a dazzling prologue providing a detailed summary of the history of humanity according to the scriptures in fabulous images.

The spectacular nature of the project, the splendour of the manuscript and the lavish use of gold suggest it may have been a psalter for a king: Henry II himself, Louis VII of France or even Philip Augustus in the early years of his reign. Another candidate of noble birth could be Henry the Lion, duke of Saxony.

The English artists created a universe brimming with unusual scenes whose singularity and complex symbolism made them difficult to interpret. The almost dream-like portrayal of nature, with unreal, imaginary forms, is stunning. The painters endowed the animals with a personality of their own, depicting them with such expressive faces that they sometimes seem to be speaking to each other. The wealth of colours and lavish use of gold make this manuscript a veritable gem.

However, the English miniaturists’ painstaking task was mysteriously interrupted. Something happened to the workshop or the codex that prevented the Canterbury masters from completing the meticulous illumination work they had undertaken.


Barcelona, more than a century later

Pedro the Ceremonious was crowned king of Aragón and Catalonia in 1336. The painter and miniaturist, Ferrer Bassa, had already returned from his journey acquiring knowledge in Tuscany where he had been in contact with the most fertile and creative painting in the Italian Trecento.

Bassa produced several works commissioned by the king in his Barcelona workshop. A splendid psalter of English origin came into his hands, but, for some unknown reason, it was unfinished. The English masters had, however, left sketches for seven miniatures and allocated blank spaces for the rest. It is highly likely that Pedro the Ceremonious insisted on Ferrer Bassa completing this spectacular psalter for him whilst respecting its sumptuous lavishness. Modern-day researchers have found many clues linking its completion to the king himself.

The seven paintings drawn by the Canterbury masters and painted by Ferrer Bassa a century later are the result of a truly unique combination of the Anglo-Byzantine culture close to the 1200 and the pictorial forms of the 1300 Italianate Gothic. They constitute a remarkable fusion of cultures, a hybrid art in which no boundaries of space, time or culture exist.


In the second part of the manuscript, Ferrer Bassa’s brushstrokes reinterpret the Byzantine dimension of English painting with greater artistic license, revealing a thorough knowledge of trecentist pictorial resources. Bassa’s images convey new ways of structuring space along with more naturalist landscapes.

Ferrer Bassa, considered to be the finest painter in the Crown of Aragón in the 14th century, developed a personality of his own, clearly marked by the Tuscan styles of the Trecento, particularly those of Florence and Siena with which he was so familiar. A painter making a delicate, elegant and refined use of colour.

Bassa was the painter of the Catalan-Aragonese royal household and the preferred artist of Alfonso el Benigno (the kind) and Pedro the Ceremonious, who both commissioned him to produce several works for their residences and chapels royal. Most of them were apparently portraits, now missing.

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The Anglo-Catalan Psalter: a brilliant example of the internationalization of culture

Two periods, two places, two artistic style and two workshops for a single manuscript: the Anglo-Catalan Psalter.


Around the year 1200, English art experienced one of its most brilliant periods, a time when the last Romanesque stage, a marked influence of Byzantine art and the beginnings of a new style known as Gothic all came together. This rich, artistic amalgam was to merge, more than a century later, with the finest, Italianate Gothic introduced into the Iberian Peninsula by Bassa Ferrer. The result is a perfect symbiosis between the most splendid English painting of the late 12th century and the most innovative and interesting Catalan painting of the 14th century.

This convergence of the two different figurative cultures of England and Catalonia, more than one hundred years apart, is one of the most important features of the codex, a facet that makes it unique in the history of art. The Anglo-Catalan Psalter is an essential manuscript for an understanding of medieval European painting.

This lavish psalter captivated the leading figures of western history and occupied a place of honour in their libraries. It belonged to the exquisite Jean, duque de Berry and the first female bibliophile in history, Margaret of Austria, who bequeathed it to Mary of Hungary, emperor Charles V’s sister. Napoleon Bonaparte removed it from the Bourgogne library in Brussels and took it to Paris in 1796. In 1809, it received the binding featuring Napoleon I’s coat of arms that it has retained to the present day.

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