State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 51 & 52 1993


Plate 5 (top left). Crucifixion. Codex Sancti Paschalis. f.182r (detail).
Plate 6 (bottom left). Adoration of the Magi and the Presentation in the Temple. Psalter-Hours. Melbourne, State Library of Victoria, *096/R66.f.18v.
Plate 8 (bottom right). Aves: Theophilus kneeling before the Virgin Mary. Psalter-Hours. Melbourne, State Library of Victoria, *096/R66.f183r.


Plate 7. Ascension and Pentecost. Psalter-Hours. Melbourne, State Library of Victoria, *096/R66.f.19v.


Devotional Images and Pious Practices in a Psalter from Liège

The Psalms of David enjoyed immense popularity in the Middle Ages as the foundation of private religious devotions. Excerpted from the Bible in an independent manuscript, they were surrounded by other texts used in daily prayer. The book opened with a Calendar listing saints' days and major religious feasts of the year. Prefatory full-page miniatures forming a picture Bible often followed before the psalms themselves. Next, one normally encountered canticles — poetic texts extracted from the Old and New Testaments — which served as a supplement to the Psalms. These were followed by a litany invoking many of the same saints as the Calendar and petitioning them to intercede with God for one's salvation. In the second half of the thirteenth century this devotional Psalter was often expanded yet further by the addition of the Hours of the Virgin and the Office of the Dead. A Psalter in the State Library of Victoria in Melbourne1 from the Belgian diocese of Liège ranks among the most complex of Psalter-Hours manuscripts, for it has also added an Easter Table after the Calendar to aid in determining the date of this movable feast. In addition, at the end of the book, one finds three Offices of the Virgin Mary for the feasts of the Annunciation, Purification, and Assumption, as well as a 150-stanza poem in her honour, Ave porta paradisi.
To appreciate how the Melbourne Psalter was used in daily devotions, a survey of its textual and visual contents is needed. Hopefully in the process of understanding the owner's experience in leafing through this manuscript, we may also come to discover who the owner might have been.
In consulting the Calendar to determine the feast of the day, the owner would encounter the first of many artistic embellishments which make the Melbourne Psalter such a precious object, for it is richly illuminated with twenty-four medallions in the Calendar, three full-page miniatures, and two dozen large historiated initials. Small vignettes depicting the activity of the month — agricultural labours such as pruning the vines and mowing hay, or more pleasant diversions such as gathering the first flowers of spring — are joined with signs of the zodiac to mark the cycle of astronomical time.2
Attention would then shift to the cycle of Christian time as one turned the page to the first of the two prefatory full-page miniatures. The infancy of Christ is illustrated on these pages in four scenes of the Annunciation, Nativity, Adoration of the Magi and Presentation in the Temple (Plate 6). Each page is accompanied by a crowd witnessing apostles or saints who populate six quadrilobes bordering the main miniatures, which are placed in large roundels. The first page is occupied by apostles, the second by male saints. The full-page initial introducing the Psalter itself which follows is bordered by female saints. Thus the saints are visually invoked in litany order: apostles precede martyrs and confessors who precede virgins.
A French-language poem faces the second miniature. It is one of the most popular of a group of meditations on events of Christ's life to be found in thirteenth-century Psalters from the Liège diocese.3 At first glance modern readers may be mystified by its presence here, for instead of celebrating the joys of Christ's infancy, this poem meditates on the sufferings of the passion. “Une faisselet de myre est mes amis a moi (e)” (“A basket of myrrh is my friend to me”) concentrates on a gift of the Magi being presented on the facing page. But the scent of myrrh, the rich unguent used to annoint the dead, evokes for the poet the image of Christ as the Man of Sorrows. He asks to internalize this myrrh, to identify with Christ's sufferings, especially the blows of the Flagellation, to cry and constantly smell and feel its bitterness in remembrance of mankind's responsibility for Christ's death. For the poet, the world, the flesh, and the devil are a source of constant moral torment. The myrrh is a healing balm for sins, a cure for the decay of the mortal body, the source of salvation. Such a lugubrious poem with its
violent loathing for the human body, guilt for one's individual sins, and overwhelming sense of moral responsibility for Christ's death is sobering indeed, but it contains as well a deep emotional identification with Christ as a model for one's life, and a faith at the end of the poem in resurrection after death.
The Passion is the focus of many of the poems surviving in Liège Psalters, and the Adoration of the Magi inspired one other very popular poem: “Pius deus omnipotens ki haut sies et lone vois” (“Omnipotent God who sits on high and sees far, who at the limits of the earth appeared to the kings”). Here the gifts of the Magi are explicitly cited: with joy they gave you gifts of gold, incense and myrrh. These presents signified royalty, divinity, and death. Infancy and death, Incarnation and Passion, are thus inextricably linked in the devotions of these thirteenth-century Psalters.
Joy at Christ's infancy finds its focus in veneration of the Virgin Mary. Her Office follows the Psalter and two of the additional abbreviated Marian Offices celebrate major events of the infancy cycle: the Annunciation and Purification in the Temple. The Hours of the Virgin are illustrated by an image of the Virgin and Child enthroned at Matins. The three additional Marian Offices add scenes of the Annunciation. Presentation of the Christ Child in the Temple, and Mary's Coronation as Queen of Heaven. The latter is the final culminating image in the manuscript. It is curious to note that two of these Marian Offices and their illustrations repeat themes found in the two prefatory images. The Annunciation begins the cycle of full-page miniatures and the Presentation in the Temple concludes it while at the end of the manuscript the Presentation illustrating the Hours of the Purification precedes the Hours of the Annunciation in calendrical order. (The feast of the Purification falls on 2 February, that of the Annunciation on 25 March, and that of the Assumption on 15 August.) As a result, images of the Annunciation and Presentation form mirror-imaged parentheses at the beginning and end of the manuscript.
Yet while the joy of the Incarnation begins and ends the biblical picture cycle in this manuscript, the Passion intrudes even into the Hours of the Virgin. After the introductory Matins initial showing the Virgin and Child enthroned, the rest of the initials for the Hours of Lauds through Compline turn to the sufferings of Christ at the Passion. This is explicable because the passion story is the only narrative in the Bible where events are tied to specific times of day, and medieval religious practice had long included meditation on these sufferings of Christ at the liturgical divisions of the day.4 The Betrayal at Lauds is followed by Christ's appearance before Pilate, the Flagellation alluded to in the prefatory poem, Christ carrying the cross. His Crucifixion, the Deposition and finally a scene of Resurrection (the Three Maries seeing the angel at Christ's tomb). In only some of these scenes (the Crucifixion and Deposition) is the Virgin present, although it is her text which is being illustrated. The first and last initials do however tie together. The promise of the Incarnation visualized in Mary enthroned with her child is fulfilled in the angel's announcement of Christ's Resurrection.
The Psalter in Christian usage was subdivided into sections to be read each day so that the whole 150 psalms would be recited each week. Historiated initials mark these divisions, with a full-page initial for Psalm 1 and an extra initial on the facing page for Psalm 2 forming an artistic double-page frontispiece to the Psalms (Plate 7)5. King David, as the Hebrew author of the Psalter, is given a portrait at Psalm 2 while the first Psalm is reserved for Christ, the Blessed Man invoked in the words of the Psalm itself: “Blessed is the Man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked”. The illustrations of the various Psalm divisions echo the double theme of the frontispiece initials. Some depict King David: at Psalm 80 he plays a carillon, and at Psalm 101 he kneels in prayer. Others illustrate Christ's evasion of the “way of the wicked.” The Flight into Egypt at Psalm 38 and Massacre of the Innocents at Psalm 51 show His escape from King Herod's wrath; the Temptation in the wilderness at Psalm 51 His rejection of the snares of the devil. The dominant theme of the initials is one of triumph over suffering and death. At Psalm 26 Christ heals a blind King David. At Psalm 68 in illustration of one of His parables, Jonah is saved from the mouth of the whale, a symbol of resurrection. The Psalter cycle concludes with an image of the Throne

Fig. 4. Aves: Annunciation and female suppliant kneeling before the Virgin Many. Modena, Biblioteca Estense, MS lat. 844. f. 218.

of Grace at Psalm 109, God enthroned exhibiting His son on the cross. This expresses the hope of redemption to be obtained through the Mass, as Christ's sacrifice re-enacted in the Mass ritual promised salvation for believers. The hopeful message of the Throne of Grace initial re-echoes the theme of Psalm 1 where the Ascension and Pentecost proclaim the Resurrection and Christ's divinity. Thus the first and last illustrations of the Psalter also form thematic parentheses, underlining the Christological interpretation of these Hebrew poems.
While the Psalter is interpreted as a meditation on Christ as the Blessed Man, the Virgin Mary receives comparable attention in a Marian Psalter, 150 Aves evoking her by ever-changing epithets often inspired by the words of the Psalms. The Aves found in the Melbourne Psalter are a Latin poem of twelfth-century composition written by a monk of the Cistercian order, here entitled Salutationes, which begins “Ave porta paradisi” (Hail door of paradise). It is illustrated with one of the Virgin's most popular miracles, the salvation of Theophilus, a cleric who had sold his soul to the devil (Plate 8). He kneels in prayer before the Virgin who holds the sealed contract for his soul. Thus he is again literally in good hands. Perhaps inspired by Theophilus' peril, the Aves are followed by an ancient church hymn, Veni creator spiritus, which invokes the Holy Spirit to fill one's soul and drive away evil.
The Aves are subdivided by three-line penwork initials into three groups of fifty stanzas. A similar organization is found in three contemporary Liège Psalters which have recently come to light in Barcelona, London, and Modena.6 Such division into three crowns or garlands imitates the oldest way of dividing the Psalter in Christian usage, with initials at Psalms 1, 51, and 101. Later more elaborate subdivision of the Aves in series of tens evolved into the rosary. The Modena Psalter depicts the Annunciation, thus interpreting the first word of the poem, “Ave” as the angel's salutation in the gospel announcing the Incarnation (Fig. 4). The dove of the Holy Spirit breathes the spirit of God into the Virgin through her ear. Below the bar of the letter A, a second scene illustrates the literal sense of the poem. A lay woman in typical thirteenth-century headgear kneels in prayer before the Virgin, the words of her prayer inscribed on the scroll in her hands: “Ave porta paradisi”. The Virgin stands next to a turret with an open door, literally the door of paradise.
The Melbourne Psalter lacks any internal evidence to identify its original owner. There are no gender-specific terms in the prayers to allow one to decide if the owner was male or female, and there are no images like that in the Modena Psalter. The Calendar and litany indicate that it was made for use in the diocese of Liège, and various liturgical texts follow diocesan usage. Thus the litany is followed by a petition for the clergy and people of the cathedral of Liège, and the Hours of the Virgin are not the standard text of her Office but the text for the feast of the Nativity of the Virgin, to which the cathedral of Liège was dedicated. This suggests that the owner was a layperson, since monks and nuns follow liturgical usage unique to their orders. The very complex textual contents of the Melbourne Psalter are unusual, and place it in a very small group amongst surviving thirteenth-century Psalters. Textual complexity alone, however, does not identify a specific type of owner, either clerical or lay. With this reservation in mind, it can nevertheless be noted that comparatively complex Psalters from the Liège diocese at this period with more individualizing contents were often made for beguines.
The beguines were lay women of the bourgeoisie and landed gentry, generally urban women in the newly prosperous towns of modern-day Belgium who lived a religious life without entering monastic orders. Thus they needed books of great liturgical complexity which followed diocesan usage. Many of the texts found in the Melbourne Psalter are known to have been used by beguines in their daily devotions, as they are mentioned in statutes governing beguine communities or in the lives of exceptionally pious beguines written by contemporary clerics.7 (Such spiritual biographies were a standard first step in the process of obtaining sainthood, but none of these women achieved more than local veneration.) Thus beguines are routinely described as reading their Psalters, the Hours of the Virgin, the Office of the Dead, and various canticles. The Aves were recited frequently. The Easter Table is based on a verse honoring Lambert, the patron saint of the
diocese. The verse appears in the Calendar in the months of March and April, marking the dates on which Easter might fall. This table is associated with a twelfth-century cleric traditionally considered the “founder” of the beguine movement, Lambert le Bègue. In one Liège Psalter clearly made for beguines of the parish of Saint Christophe, a portrait of Lambert le Bègue identifies him as the founder of Saint Christophe, founder of the beguines, and author of the Easter Table.8
As Manion and Vines noted in their catalogue of medieval illuminated manuscripts in Australian collections, the Melbourne Psalter does not contain Mass prayers, essential elements of beguine piety to be found in some of the most textually complex Liège Psalters assuredly made for beguines.9 We know that beguines attended Mass daily and made the elements of the Mass a dominant focus of their piety. Yet such Mass prayers are to be found in only a handful of Liège manuscripts, and even then were often only later additions jotted down on whatever blank page was available. Eucharistic devotion was nevertheless of central importance to the owner of the Melbourne Psalter. The repeated image of Christ's Presentation in the Temple at the beginning and end of the manuscript depicts him upright on an altar, in a frontal position between the Virgin and Simeon, who help to hold him erect. This has long been interpreted as a eucharistic image in which the body of Christ is presented to the worshipper.10 Equally eucharistic is the image at Psalm 109 where God holds up the crucified Christ, offering the viewer the body and blood of Christ. The subsequent initial introducing the canticles repeats the eucharistic theme, as it depicts Doubting Thomas placing his hand in Christ's side. This literally illustrates the words of the canticle: “you shall draw waters with joy out of the saviour's fountain” (Is. 12:3). The “fountain” is equated with the wound in Christ's side, the wound in turn with the blood of the Mass.11
Faith in the Resurrection and hope of salvation weave their way through the texts and images of the Melbourne Psalter. The Three Maries at the tomb at Compline, Christ's appearance to Thomas at canticles, and His triumphant Ascension at Psalm 1 are direct expressions of this theme. The Easter Table itself focuses on this event, which was of particular earthly importance in Liège where the year began at Easter instead of 1 January. Hope of personal salvation is voiced by the poet in the last few lines of his composition. The myrrh of Christ's death is asked to bring one's soul perpetual life and health in eternal joy. Two other salvation themes in the Psalter give this petition visualization. The salvation of Jonah from the mouth of the whale at Psalm 68 is a paradigm of Christian salvation, and eternal life is envisioned at the Office of the Dead in the image of the image of the Bosom of Abraham. The heads of tiny souls peek out of a giant napkin resting in God's lap.
While the ownership of the Melbourne Psalter cannot be determined with assurance, it thus contains many texts known to have been used by beguines, and incorporates the essential elements of their spirituality.12 One other element of the Melbourne Psalter might suggest that the owner was a woman. This is its incorporation of texts in the French vernacular. We encountered the French language in the prefatory poem. It recurs in explanatory rubrics within the last Marian Offices where all texts are abbreviated, and the reader needs to know where to turn in the main Hours of the Virgin Office to find a full transcription of each text. This suggests that the owner was more familiar with French than Latin, and needed these cues to know what text followed. A male cleric would be sufficiently educated in Latin not to need such assistance. People learned Latin in the Middle Ages by memorizing the Psalter as children. Similar rote memorization of the Hours of the Virgin and Office of the Dead was recommended in the education of girls.13 How much of this literature people really understood is open to question, but daily recitation of many of these texts would make them an integral part of life. Women's limited understanding of Latin made them prominent patrons of vernacular literature.14
Reliance on pictures as aids to meditation is also a development of devotional books associated with female spirituality. The French poem and the miniature which faces it are of equal importance for the owner's meditations, while “imageless” devotion was considered a much higher ideal in male monastic circles.15
The Melbourne Psalter is the work of an accomplished artist who belonged to an atelier active in Liège around 1270. Its style was derived from northem France and Hainault to the west. Highly burnished gold leaf forms the backgrounds of all of the miniatures which glow with deep royal blue and vermilion pigments, the dominant colour scheme of thirteenth-century French Gothic painting and stained glass.
The owner of this book must have been a lay person of considerable means, and one who devoted a significant portion of each day to religious exercises. That the owner was a woman, and specifically a beguine, is a distinct possibility. The visual contents of the Melbourne Psalter accord equal importance to veneration of the Virgin Mary and meditation on the passion of Christ. Humanity and pathos are emphasized, reflecting the very emotional and increasingly private nature of religious devotions in the late Middle Ages.
Judith Oliver
Associate Professor
Department of Art and Art History
Colgate University


MS. *096/R66. M. Manion and V. Vines, Medieval and Renaissance Illuminated Manuscripts in Australian Collections, Melbourne, 1984, no. 69, pp. 170–73. pl. 35 and figs 155–62: J. Oliver, Gothic Manuscript Illumination in the Diocese of Liège (c.1250 — c.1330): Corpus of Illuminated Manuscripts from the Low Countries 2–3, Leuven, 1988, no. 25, pp. 273–4 and pls. 24,42, 53, 61, 74, 101, 106, 116 and 120.


For the calendar cycle see Oliver, Gothic Manuscript Illumination, pp. 29–32.


K. Sinclair, “Les manuscripts du psautier de Lambert le Bègue”, Romania 86, 1965, pp. 22–47.


Oliver, Gothic Manuscript Illumination, pp. 88–96.


For the psalter cycles of Liège Psalters see ibid., pp. 51–77.


Barcelona, Biblioteca Universitaria MS. 165: London. Sotheby's 5 December 1989 lot 83 (now on deposit in Geneva, Bibliothèque Publique et Universitaire, Comites Latentes Collection MS. 239): and Modena, Biblioteca Estense MS. lat. 844. For the Barcelona Psalter see Sint-Truiden, Provinciaal Museum voor Religieuze Kunst, In beeld geprezen: Miniaturen uit Maaslandse devotieboeken 1250–1350, Leuven, 1989, no. 9, pp. 74–6 (with illustration) by J. Oliver. For the London Psalter, see J. Oliver, “ ‘Gothic’ Women and Merovingian Desert Mothers”, Gesta (forthcoming); and “Je pecherise renc grasces a vos: Some French Devotional Texts in Beguine Psalters”, Studies for Keith Val Sinclair (forthcoming). For the Modena Psalter see E. Milano, P. DiPietro Lombardi, and A. R. Venturi Barbolini, Biblioteca Estense, Florence. 1987, p. 64 and pls xvii-xviii.


J. Oliver, “Devotional Psalters and the Study of Beguine Spirituality”, Vox Benedictina 9. 1992. pp. 198–225.


London, British Library Add. 21114.


Manion and Vines, p. 171.


A. Katzenellenbogen, The Sculptural Programs of Chartres Cathedral, New York, 1959. p. 14.


For further discussion of this image see J. Oliver. “Je pecherise”.


For recent study of beguines' devotion to the Eucharist and the Passion of Christ see C. Bynum. Holy Feast and Holy Fast: the Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women, Berkeley, 1987.


V. Sekules, “Women and Art in England in the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries”, in J. Alexander and P. Binski (eds.), The Age of Chivalry: Art in Plantagenet England 1200–1400, London, 1987, p. 44.


H. Grundmann, “Die Frauen und die Literatur im Mittelalter: Ein Beitrag zur Frage nach der Entstehung des Schrifttums in der Volkssprache”, Archiv für Kultur-geschichte 26, 1936, pp. 129–61: and see also S. Bell, “Medieval Women Book Owners: Arbiters of Lay Piety and Ambassadors of Culture”, Signs 7, 1982. pp. 752–60.


For the role of nuns in the development of illustrated prayerbooks, see J. Hamburger, “A Liber Precum in Sélestat and the Development of the Illustrated Prayerbook in Germany”, Art Bulletin 73, 1991. pp. 209–36.