Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 11, 2001
Lucy Freeman Sandler The Psalter of Robert de Lisle Harvey Miller Publishers, 1999. 120 pp.; 25 color ills.; 55 b/w ills. Paper $35.00 (187250132X)

The Psalter of Robert de Lisle (London, British Library Arundel MS 83 II) has been mentioned in every major publication on the masterpieces of English manuscript illumination. Lucy Freeman Sandler’s The Psalter of Robert de Lisle in the British Library, first published in 1983, is the first focused study of the Psalter, and condenses material from her 1964 doctoral dissertation. Scholarly reviews in the mid-1980s, such as those by Walter Cahn in the Art Bulletin (September 1987, 472-473) and Adelaide Bennett in Speculum (October 1987, 985-989), were positive and acted as venues for yet more useful material about the style, iconography, and codicology of the Psalter.

A new edition of Sandler’s study offers an affordable softcover format that has essentially the same text and extensive illustrations of the hardback version. The intervening years of scholarship are reflected by an added preface, a postscript, and additional bibliography that cites, among other publications, reviews of the first edition. Sandler’s preface (7) mentions that the general study of manuscripts has changed during the thirty-five years since she began her study but concludes that an “entirely new book on the Psalter of Robert de Lisle however should be a project for another writer.”

Reframed as a springboard for new research, Sandler’s book provides an excellent overview of the de Lisle Psalter. The fragmentary Psalter contains a calendar and twenty-four illuminations, including narrative scenes from the life of Christ, devotional icons of the Virgin and Child and the Crucifixion, and a series of thirteen diagrams that present a remarkable compendium of medieval theological and moral “facts” known as the Speculum theologie, and were most likely grouped together originally as the pictorial preface to a Psalter. One page of the calendar and each of the illuminations are reproduced in full color, each of which faces a page of commentary on its iconography and style. Many of the illuminations also are presented in black and white among the fifty-five figures that follow the color plates, which provide a wealth of stylistic and iconographic comparisons.

Reproductions of the illuminations, along with brief commentaries on each folio, comprise the bulk of the book. The introduction (11-31) provides broader historical commentary on the manuscript, its production, and its iconography. Sandler lays out the attribution to Robert de Lisle’s ownership and the salient facts of his life, then turns to the decoration of the Psalter, and, after a discussion of medieval workshop practices, analyzes the style of its paintings. She attributes them to three artists, two of whom merit names of convenience—the Madonna Master and the Majesty Master—and lays out her view of the stylistic associations with other paintings. Throughout the book, and particularly in this section, Sandler’s language is precise and evocative. In her discussion of the style of the Majesty Master, she writes, “The number of planes, or layers of figures, was increased and the effect of a deeper or thicker mesh of figures was created by the successive rows of heads, one overlapping the next” (18).

Next, Sandler discusses the iconography of the illuminations. She informs the reader that the identification of the folios comprising Arundel 83 II as the pictorial preface of a Psalter is speculation. Robert de Lisle referred to it simply as a livre, and yet “since the choice of subjects, especially the narrative subjects is more typical of a Psalter than any other type of text, the traditional appellation is best retained” (20). A condensed discussion of subject matter (21-28) leads to her proposed reconstruction of the remaining folios, based on her analysis of their iconography and codicology. She concludes by arguing that in spite of the fragmentary nature of the manuscript, the folios—as they now survive, with their program clarified by her reorganization—are a complete group (31).

In the 1983 edition, the introduction was followed by full-color reproductions of and commentary on each folio. In the new edition, the introduction is extended with a two-page postscript and fourteen citations: five reviews of the first edition and nine publications Sandler considers to be most important with regard to the de Lisle Psalter. In the postscript, she briefly addresses some of the reviews and their criticisms, and then turns to studies that provide the material for placing the Psalter within a larger stylistic, iconographical, or social context. These include her volume, Gothic Manuscripts 1285-1385 (Survey of Manuscripts Illuminated in the British Isles, vol. 5) (London: Harvey Miller, 1986) and The Age of Chivalry: Art in Plantagenet England 1200-1400, edited by J. J. G. Alexander and Paul Binski (London: Royal Academy of Arts, 1986). Her concluding paragraph addresses the question of what new directions her study might support, especially those examining the relationships between the imagery and the piety and social status of the Psalter’s original audience, Robert de Lisle.

Yet she cautions that the manuscript should not be trivialized as a mirror of its social milieu, for “the De Lisle Psalter is important not because it is exemplary but because it is unique” (34). This is a worthwhile concern, but the approach of Michael Camille’s recent book, Mirror in Parchment: The Luttrell Psalter and the Making of Medieval England (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), on another important English manuscript is an instructive example to the contrary. The marginal paintings of the Luttrell Psalter have been heavily mined for their scenes of manor life, yet Camille argues that any reality reflected in these scenes is primarily one constructed for and by the patron and artists. Like the Luttrell Psalter, the de Lisle Psalter is among the relatively small number of manuscripts that can be identified with an owner about whom a fair amount of information survives. As Sandler’s introduction tells us (12-13), Robert de Lisle (1288-1344) held lands in several counties and attended Parliament during the reign of Edward II and the early years of Edward III. After the death of his wife in 1339, he divested himself of his properties and entered the Franciscan convent of the Greyfriars in London, which he had supported financially. He died in 1344 and was buried in the choir of the Greyfriars church, a place of high honor shared with two English queens and other notables. The connection between the man and the manuscript is an inscription in the calendar in a hand that, without explanation, Sandler identifies as that of de Lisle. On the day of November 25, de Lisle wrote that he gave the book to his daughter Audere, after whom it should go to her sister Alborou, and that it should remain forever with “the ladies of Chequesaundes,” or Chicksandes Priory, a Gilbertine foundation near the family manor at Campton. With the prudence that marks her scholarship in general, Sandler refrains from assuming that Audere and Alborou actually received the manuscript, noting that no further inscriptions or additions were made to the calendar. Likewise, she does not state that de Lisle commissioned the manuscript. Rather, she writes, “In spite of the uncertainty as to how or exactly when before 1339 Robert de Lisle acquired the manuscript, it is difficult to resist the conviction that the unique combination of features found in this Psalter could scarcely have found a more suitable owner” (13).

A book on one illuminated manuscript can be difficult to publish. The most luxurious examples are heavily illustrated and require costly reproductions, and the expense of procuring both photographs and copyright permissions for publication is rising. Furthermore, in this era of diminishing university library budgets, academic presses seem less interested in publishing monographic studies of single manuscripts. From that point of view, one might question the use of the publisher’s resources to reissue a book that is, after all, available in at least 230 university libraries, according to a quick search of the Online Computer Library Center (OCLC). Might those resources have been better put to use in publishing the “entirely new book” of which Sandler speaks in her preface? One might wish for newer ideas, or at least a better integration of Sandler’s fin-de-siècle scholarship with that of two or three decades ago. On the other hand, this softcover edition may reach a new market, for the attractive cover and the beautiful reproductions may induce nonacademic buyers to purchase the book. Despite these reservations, the new edition of The Psalter of Robert de Lisle in the British Library delivers—or rather, redelivers—solid scholarship in a useful and affordable package.

Anne Rudloff Stanton
University of Missouri-Columbia