Delight in the Dynamic, Revolutionary Style of Medieval Illustrations

The Utrecht Psalter, created in the 9th century, is famous for its rich palette of motifs, illustrations of the psalms and canticles, and its messages about proper rulership.

By UNESCO Memory of the World

Ms 32, fol. 06v-7r, Ps 11&12 (9th century)UNESCO Memory of the World

The Utrecht Psalter

The Utrecht Psalter is an illuminated manuscript from Reims, France produced during the Carolingian Empire, circa 830, that’s famous for its rich palette of motifs, illustrations of the psalms and canticles, revolutionary dynamic style, and visual messages about proper rulership.

League of Its Own

The Psalter is an extraordinary manuscript, almost in a league on its own, even in the context of the entire manuscript production of the Medieval period. 

Ms 32, fol. 51v, detail (9th century)UNESCO Memory of the World

Four Ways It’s Important to Carolingian Art and Culture

1. Iconography

The whole production of the Psalter, with its extensive iconography (images and symbols associated with a subject, especially religious or legendary) combined with the high quality of the drawings, is unique among the existing Carolingian manuscripts.

59r PSALM-102 (9th century)UNESCO Memory of the World

2. Window into Carolingian Thinking

The Psalter provides a window into the Carolingian way of thinking. The choices of the artists reflect a preoccupation with themes revolving around good and evil in the 9th century.

58r PSALM-101 (9th century)UNESCO Memory of the World

3. Moral Instruction

Its illustrations reflect the violence and warfare of the Carolingian age but are also meant for moral instruction, apparently for a (future) king, and are thus known as the first visual "mirror of princes."

72r PSALM-120-PSALM-121 (9th century)UNESCO Memory of the World

4. Links with Roman Art

The Psalter’s production was a defining moment in Carolingian culture and forms a crucial link between Late Roman art and its Carolingian translation. 

72r PSALM-120-PSALM-121 (9th century)UNESCO Memory of the World

Cycle of Psalm Illustrations

It contains the most complete cycle of psalm illustrations inherited from the Late Roman period. The illustrations have a Carolingian twist and skillfully combine the old and the new. Parts of this cycle are also found in Byzantine and Western manuscripts.

73r PSALM-124-PSALM-125 (9th century)UNESCO Memory of the World

Why is the Psalter Artistically Special?

1. Sketchiness

The Psalter is the epitome of a sketchy, dynamic way of drawing which is characteristic of the influential Reims school of manuscript illumination. It reflects a revolutionary new style of the drawings.

Ms 32, fol. 51v, detail (9th century)UNESCO Memory of the World

2. Influence and Legacy

It’s a key manuscript of Christian art. No other illuminated manuscript has exercised such a profound artistic influence and legacy.

33r PSALM-58 (9th century)UNESCO Memory of the World

Intensive Studies

Few illuminated manuscripts have been studied so intensively as the Utrecht Psalter. 

"The verve and artistic skill displayed in the drawings rend the volume one of the most remarkable products of the entire Middle Ages." - E.A. Lowe, 1952

36r PSALM-64 (9th century)UNESCO Memory of the World

It’s "the most famous and frequently reproduced among all Carolingian manuscripts, indeed among illuminated manuscripts of any period." - Lawrence Nees, 1997

Prolonged and Direct Influence

The Psalter had a significant influence on style and iconography from the 9th to 13th centuries, at first in northern Francia and later in England. No other illuminated manuscript has enjoyed such a prolonged and important direct influence. 

90v CANTICUM-15 (9th century)UNESCO Memory of the World

Lasting Legacy

Its unique status has been reaffirmed by each new generation of scholars from the middle of the 19th century onwards, when the Utrecht Psalter was rediscovered.

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UNESCO's Memory of the World Programme is an international initiative launched to safeguard the documentary heritage of humanity against collective amnesia, neglect, the ravages of time and climatic conditions, and willful and deliberate destruction.
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