Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 26, 2007
Marina Vidas The Christina Psalter: A Study of the Images and Texts in a French Early Thirteenth-Century Illuminated Manuscript Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, 2006. 154 pp.; 20 color ills.; 21 b/w ills. Cloth €34.00 (8763501279)
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This is an admirable example of a type of book that is becoming an endangered species: the illuminated manuscript monograph. As one would expect from such a book, it covers everything about the superbly decorated Christina Psalter (Copenhagen, The Royal Library, GKS 1606, 4˚)—from date, provenance, and textual and visual analyses to patronage and interpretations for the intended reader. Although scholars have discussed various aspects of the manuscript in isolation, Vidas’s book is the first comprehensive account and will now become the definitive study.

The first descriptive chapter intricately weaves together text and image. Beginning with the flyleaves, Vidas meticulously describes each section of the manuscript, and then discusses clues about the provenance, the book’s materials and ornamentation (subjects that are frequently overlooked), and the binding.

The second chapter focuses on the artistic context of the miniatures. As the author mentions, this section relies heavily on the writings of Reiner Haussherr and especially on the work of Robert Branner. Her distinctive thesis, though, is clearly stated: she argues for the royal patronage of the manuscript, and thus she emphasizes comparisons with Psalters and Moralized Bibles that we know were produced for the same audience.

Chapter 3 continues the discussion of the illuminators, with a particular focus on the style and iconography of the prefatory cycle. Again, Branner’s work is invoked with a summary of his division of the illumination into three distinctive hands. Vidas’s argument about the relationship between this Psalter and the deluxe, three-volume Moralized Bibles (Oxford-Paris-London Bible; Oxford, Bodleian Library Bodley 270b, Paris, BnF lat. 11560, London, British Library Harley 1526–7; and Toledo-New York Moralized Bible; Toledo Cathedral and New York, Pierpont Morgan Library M. 240) is particularly strong. One of her compelling examples is that the figures in the rectangular fields of the prefatory cycle of the Christina Psalter appear to be too tall for their frames, and, furthermore, they are represented with their upper bodies arched and heads inclined (42). Vidas’s hypothesis that the same artists had already started working within the more restrictive roundel format of the Moralized Bibles is visually convincing. It is at this point, however, where some of the technical problems with this publication become apparent: Vidas mentions that, “all of the colors employed in the Christina Psalter are also found in the three-volume Moralized Bibles” (42). Unless the reader is very familiar with the use of colors in the Moralized Bibles or has another publication readily at hand, the images reproduced here are only in black and white, precluding any attempt to verify this visual comparison. Vidas’s analysis is so detailed and thorough that points such as the similarity of the “texture of brown hair” (44) with the Oxford volume become particularly frustrating since again they are impossible to confirm.

By contrast, readers will not face the same obstacles in regard to Vidas’s examination of the iconography. In particular, she notes that there is a striking emphasis on the Three Magi in the Christina Psalter which one also finds in the Toledo-New York and the Oxford-Paris-London Bibles. Themes of anti-Judaism and abuse of authority also pervade both the Christina Psalter and the Moralized Bibles. These striking iconographic connections also contribute to a strong case for their artistic relationship.

Vidas’s judicious argument concerning the manuscript’s audience unfolds in chapter 4. She carefully lays out the cases for all of the possible patrons: Queen Ingeborg of Denmark, King Louis VIII, Blanche of Castile, and Blanche’s children. Although the manuscript was produced during the decade before her birth, Christina of Norway (1234–1262), a later owner of the manuscript (and hence its name), was connected to both Blanche and Louis through her marriage to Philip of Castile and León in 1258. Vidas tentatively puts forward the thesis that Blanche of Castile commissioned the book for herself or one of her children (53), and that through gifts or inheritances, it ended up in Christina’s hands, and then eventually back to Norway.

Chapter 5 continues the in-depth visual analysis with a catalogue of the illuminations of the Christina Psalter. Here Vidas compares the book with other well-known deluxe Psalters, such as the Psalter of Queen Jeanne of Navarre (Manchester, John Rylands Library, MS lat. 22), the Blanche Psalter (Paris, Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal, MS 1186), the Ingeborg Psalter (Chantilly, Musée Condé, MS 9 olim 1695), the Winchester Psalter (London, British Library MS Cotton Nero C.IV), the St. Albans Psalter (Hildesheim, St. Godehard), and the Lewis Psalter (Philadelphia, Free Library, MS E 185). Through her comparisons, Vidas found that none of these Psalters contains the same sequence of images in their prefatory cycles (85). While we might be tempted to connect the Christina Psalter with the Ingeborg Psalter, there are notable iconographic differences. For example, the Ingeborg Psalter places much more emphasis on the Virgin Mary and female saints (86). It becomes clear again that the iconography of the Christina Psalter adheres more closely to the Moralized Bibles.

A conclusion and a summary follow chapter 5. Vidas connects pervasive anti-Jewish imagery in this Psalter both to the Moralized Bibles—a theme that has been studied extensively by Sara Lipton in Images of Intolerance: The Representation of Jews and Judaism in the Bible moralisée (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999)—and to numerous other Psalters. Royal imagery is also paramount in this Psalter, more so than in other contemporary Psalters, with special iconographic emphases on the Magi and on Herod (91). This observation leads to an important question about the gender of the intended viewer. Since most of the royalty represented in the book are kings, could Blanche of Castile still be the likely owner? Vidas prudently leans toward the affirmative, writing that, “I see no reason why the recipient of the Christina Psalter might not have been Blanche and that the men in the Gospel narrative could not have provided her with important lessons, especially during the time she was acting as regent for Louis IX” (92).

The summary that follows is particularly useful in drawing together the major conclusions of the book. The manuscript dates from the period of 1224–34, with both the terminus post quem and terminus ante quem solidly based on feast days included (Robert of Molesme) and those omitted (there are no mendicants). The Litany also indicates that the Psalter was made for the use of the Royal Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés (94). The case is reiterated, perhaps even too cautiously, that Blanche of Castile commissioned the book either for herself or for Louis IX (95). The very useful appendices provide manuscript scholars with all of the information one could possibly require: physical description, contents, illuminations, binding, a break-down of the hands of the illuminators, provenance, a transcription of saints in the Litany, a list of all historiated and ornamental initials, and a transcription of the calendar. The bibliography is also extensive, especially for such a short book.

As my comments so far have probably indicated, my main criticisms with the book lie not with the author but with the publisher. Vidas mentions the website of the Royal Library, Copenhagen, where the entire manuscript under discussion is digitally available (www.kb.dk). As publishing costs and image-related fees in particular continue to rise and manuscript libraries and museums progress with the digitization of their collections, we may wonder about the fate of illuminated manuscript monographs. In this publication, the black-and-white figures and color plates are each relegated to single quires. In chapter 3, where Vidas provides a rich series of comparisons, readers are obliged to hold their places in the text, while at the same time flipping first to the color plates from the Christina Psalter, and then to the comparanda, sometimes two at a time. It was undoubtedly much less expensive to produce this book than, say, Lucy Freeman Sandler’s The Licthtenthal Psalter and the Manuscript Patronage of the Bohun Family (London: Harvey Miller, 2004), which weaves text, images, and comparanda together much more seamlessly. Yet, for the genre of the illuminated manuscript monograph to survive, I believe that it is important for publishers, while working within their budgetary constraints, to make every effort to integrate images and text. If not, we might see a day when monographs are published not with pictures but with links to appropriate websites. Surely it is in the interest of manuscript specialists to keep our monographs in the “codex” format.

Despite these publication issues, Vidas’s book provides a wealth of information about an exquisitely illuminated manuscript. It serves as a model for thoroughness of research and especially for clarity of description. It is a significant contribution to scholarship about Psalters, Moralized Bibles, and royal patronage of the thirteenth century. Perhaps most importantly, as interest in women as patrons of medieval art continues to expand, her book will undoubtedly enrich and inspire future studies about the patronage of the illustrious Blanche of Castile.

Anna Russakoff
Associate Professor and Chair, Department of Art History and Fine Arts, American University of Paris

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.