14.09.10, Collins, Kidd, and Turner, The St. Albans Psalter

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Alexa Sand

The Medieval Review 14.09.10

Collins, Kristen, Peter Kidd, and Nancy Turner. The St. Albans Psalter: Painting and Prayer in Medieval England. Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2013. Pp. 104. ISBN: 978-1-60606-145-9 (paperback).

Reviewed by:
Alexa Sand
Utah State University

This slim, beautifully produced volume appeared as a companion book to the exhibition, Canterbury and St. Albans: Treasures from Church and Cloister at the J. Paul Getty Museum from 20 September 2013 to 2 February 2014 and pairs well with the other book written for the occasion, The Ancestors of Christ Windows at Canterbury Cathedral authored by Jeffery Weaver and Madeline Caviness. Both are sterling examples of the productive potential of collaboration between major, well funded museums, their conservation departments, and art historians working both as curators and as university or independent scholars. The museum's generous budget for publications allows for an expansive program of high-quality color reproduction, while the curatorial and conservation specialists contribute valuable technical perspectives and the academicians bring to bear their command of the specialist literature. The result is a book that provides both a vivid evocation of the St. Albans Psalter's material splendor and a solid introduction to the state of the research on this manuscript, at once so central to our understanding of Anglo-Norman art and so elusive in terms of its exact historical situation.

The book essentially consists of two extensively illustrated essays, the first dealing with the art historical description and assessment of the manuscript and the second representing a close, technical examination of its structure and materials. This model, in which historical and technical approaches are balanced in the treatment of the object of study, reflects the museum context of the publication, but it should be adopted far more widely in art historical research and scholarship, as it grounds the interpretive work in both the humanistic study of cultural production and the scientific and quantitative analysis of material objects. Particularly in manuscript studies, which has long incorporated the more archeological methods of codicology and paleography, it is good to see technical art history becoming more closely integrated into publications intended for a wide audience, rather than being relegated to specialist journals.

Kristen Collins, associate curator in the manuscripts department at the Getty, is responsible for the historical essay, "Pictures and the Devotional Imagination in the St. Albans Psalter." While the title seems to emphasize an understanding of the manuscript primarily in terms of image-based prayer and meditation, Collins in fact gives a very thorough but efficient account of all aspects of the its historical situation and the scholarly debates that surround such issues as date, patronage, and artistic identity. As critical as this Psalter has been to art historical accounts of Anglo-Norman illumination and the English Romanesque, and despite a huge volume of scholarship on everything from its use of multiple painting techniques to its role in the emerging practices of affective piety, certain fundamental facts about its origin remain hotly contested. In particular, Collins gives a judicious account of the dating of the manuscript, preferring to leave a relatively wide window "between about 1120 and 1140" (13) instead of deciding for any of the more precise dates proposed in recent scholarship based on circumstantial evidence. She treats the issue of patronage with equal balance. Whereas what she calls (rightly, I think) the "cult of personality" (16) associated with the charismatic figures of Abbot Geoffrey of Gorron and the anchoress Christina of Markyate has dominated scholarly interpretations of the imagery in the St. Albans Psalter, Collins reminds us that these biographies should not be allowed to absolutely determine our reading of the manuscript, due to the historical uncertainties that remain about the relationship between these two individuals and the book, not to mention each other and the biographical and hagiographical evidence regarding their lives. She might have added, too, that the dazzling command of both iconography and the painting medium exhibited by the major artist of the illuminations (the so-called Alexis Master) suggests the possibility that artistic decisions may reflect this anonymous but clearly dynamic individual's life history, aspirations, and concerns.

Extracting the St. Albans Psalter from the glamorous limelight of Christina's vita is a refreshing and important scholarly maneuver, one which allows the paintings and drawings in the manuscript to speak more clearly on their own terms, and to be evaluated more frankly in relation to the visual culture of the twelfth century. A case in point is Collins' discussion of the prefatory cycle of miniatures and its "unusual" iconography. She sounds a note of caution about the set of assumptions that posit the iconography as "unusual" in the first place, given the dearth of comparative material, then goes on to make some very suggestive comparisons with cloister and nave capital sculptures from southern France and Spain in the early twelfth century. The implications of these cross-media and international connections are much larger than can be pursued in the space of an essay in an exhibition publication of this sort, but resonant, nonetheless. Collins touches only briefly on one of the most potentially fertile of these implications, namely the possibility that the program of the Psalter preface may have worked in conjunction with the liturgical environment of a church interior activated by the performance of the Mass. This is where her title, "Pictures and the Devotional Imagination" begins to make sense; she argues that perhaps the absence of the Crucifixion between the scenes of Christ Carrying the Cross and the Descent from the Cross gestures toward "an expectation that Passion devotion should be internalized" (35), a reading supported by work on Christological devotion in the twelfth century by such historians as Rachel Fulton and Miri Rubin.

Where Collins' account of the prefatory cycle seems thin is in her relative lack of interest in the performative character of the imagery itself. Although mention is made of the speech gestures pervasive in all three sections, not enough credence is given to Otto Pächt's major contribution to our understanding of this book as engaged with the emerging practice of liturgical and sacred drama. Along with Ilene Forsythe's Throne of Wisdom (1972), Pächt's The Rise of Pictorial Narrative in Twelfth Century England (1962) played a pivotal role in putting Romanesque art into its larger social and ritual environment and deserves a little more recognition here. On the other hand, Collins does credit Rodney Thomson's recent work on the Alexis Quire that frames it in terms of the practices of intimate, voiced reading that may have characterized Abbot Geoffrey's spiritual interaction with Christina. Furthermore, the notion of "devotional imagination" also comes to the foreground in Collins' treatment of the Psalm initials, in which she imagines them as functioning less as indices of the text and more as memory sites, triggering absorbed contemplation of the previously memorized Psalm.

Meanwhile, Peter Kidd and Nancy Turner's essay, "Materiality and Collaborative Enterprise in the Making of the St. Alban's Psalter," constitutes a fine example of how to write highly readable, accessible, and yet precise technical art history. Because these scholars were able to examine the manuscript in its unbound state using up-to-date imaging and analysis technologies, they have significantly advanced the description of the book as an object, both in terms of the artistic methods employed in its making and in terms of the materials used.

Beginning with an acknowledgement of the unsettled state of scholarship on the St. Albans Psalter, the authors shift the focus from questions of patronage and use towards questions of process: what can the materiality of the book tell us about when it was produced, or the community that produced it, its economic situation, its access to resources, and its methods of work? They go on to upset the apple cart on a number of key assumptions that traditional scholarship has made about manuscripts in general and this manuscript in particular. For example, they challenge the method of precisely dating manuscripts based on scribal hand, citing the Mortuary Roll of Abbot Vitalis, a document from 1123 that is essentially a rotulus of pasted-together parchment sheets with commemorative notations about the deceased abbot of Savigny by fellow monks of a number of Anglo-Norman abbeys, including St. Albans and several in its immediate neighborhood. The great variety of different scribal hands, styles of script, and modes of decoration, all composed within a very short period of time after the death of Vitalis indicate clearly that even in a single, clearly identified year, one might find very conservative scribes working in the same milieu as innovators. In another blow to tradition, Kidd and Turner do the math on the cost of the parchment used in the Psalter. Contrary to the commonly held view that it would have been very costly to obtain the materials for the book, and based on their examination of documentary evidence about the price of parchment, they claim that the calfskin used for the St. Albans Psalter would have cost "less than one day's food and drink for the monks" (68). These are just two of many examples of the virtues of Kidd's and Turner's common-sense, workmanlike approach to their subject, and another argument for art history paying greater attention to the material character of objects themselves.

As plain-spoken as such analyses may be, they lead to a fairly radical reassessment of the manuscript. Noting the use of what must be recycled parchment or parchment incorrectly ruled by a scribal assistant, Kidd and Turner posit this as evidence that "haste, parsimony, or both were significant factors in the making of the book" (71), a reading that runs directly against the current of art historical description that makes the St. Albans Psalter out as a luxurious volume of the highest order of production. Furthermore, citing evidence from preliminary XRF (X-ray fluorescence) and Raman spectroscopic assays, they observe that the pigments used in the book's illuminations were for the most part common and easy to come by, if not always inexpensive. The use of gold, in particular, turns out to be less generous than many scholars have assumed; again, technical analysis reveals that most of the gold leaf employed in the gilding was stretched by means of using very tiny pieces over an ochre-colored bole, meaning that much less gold could be used to cover much more surface area (75-76). In short, Kidd and Turner see the St. Albans Psalter as a book produced relatively speedily and on the (also relative) cheap as compared to contemporary true-luxury books like the Bury Bible.

They link the economical technique of gilding in the book to the signature style of the Alexis Master, noting that the only other manuscript in which the pieced approach to gilding is found is the Life and Miracles of Saint Edmund now at the Morgan Library in New York (Ms. M.736), also thought to be by the work of the Alexis Master, and thus begins to emerge the character of this particular artist, a cost-conscious innovator. The variety of techniques in which works recognized by art historical consensus as belonging to the hand of this painter are executed also point to his versatility and willingness to experiment to achieve daring and attention-grabbing new effects. All the same, the authors acknowledge the way in which the well-documented practice of artistic collaboration in twelfth-century England clouds the waters of attribution. Whoever this painter was, he did not work alone, but with a team of scribes and more importantly with at least one other artist, responsible for the under-drawings of the Psalm initials and perhaps also the painting of some, but not all of those initials. Collaborative work on a single initial can foil even the sharpest connoisseurial eye in its attempt to identify the distinctive "hand" of an individual painter. Here, the strength of the book's program of illustration really comes to the fore. We are not asked to rely on Kidd and Turner's description and assessment of the minutiae of personal style that mix and mingle across the historiated initials of the St. Albans Psalter, rather, high-resolution, close-up details and infrared images reveal the distinctive habits of the two major painters and also reveal where they borrowed or learned from one another. In particular, a series of five images of profile faces from the St. Albans Psalter, the Verdun manuscript of Anselm's Prayers and Meditations, and the The Life and Miracles of Saint Edmund not only give an exquisite sense of the variegated textures of parchment, paint, and gilding, but also clearly illustrate the authors' assertion that the painter of the Alexis miniatures in the Saint Albans Psalter and of the miniatures in the Morgan's Saint Edmundused a distinctive "shorthand method of coloring the faces" (89), in which calligraphic gestures in red limn the major bony structures. Kidd's and Turner's careful, almost clinical attention to the work itself reinforces a growing art historical conviction that the artist of the Alexis quire is not the "Alexis Master" who painted the main cycle of prefatory images in the St. Albans Psalter, but a different person altogether.

Together, the essays in this volume present a clear and economical account of the state of research on the St. Albans Psalter and related works. They also propose fresh ways of thinking about and evaluating the evidence of artistic practice and devotional use that shaped the book. Although the length of the volume and its intended audience of educated, but non-specialist, museum-goers prevents any of the authors from developing complex arguments, both essays offer significant insights and refreshing directions for future scholarship. Most important are Collins' proposals that the manuscript be viewed from perspectives other than that of the compelling personalities of Geoffrey and Christina and that scholars reassess its characterization as exceptional, and Kidd's and Turner's arguments that the book is in fact not the echt-luxury product that it is often presented as being, and that "the time is ripe" (93) for more attention to the artistic personalities behind the illuminations, especially the apparently mis-named Alexis Master.

Finally, in addition to the two excellent essays, the book contains two appendices, including a very clear collation of the manuscript along with a detailed codicological description that would be a helpful model for students just beginning to work with manuscripts, and a short glossary that would serve well not just for students studying the St. Albans Psalter, but students of medieval art and illumination much generally. Though the lack of a true, scholarly bibliography is something of a shame, the "Suggestions for Further Reading" (100) provides a well-annotated snapshot of the major publications on the Psalter since Adolph Goldschmidt's 1895 monograph in German. This section also gives references for readers interested in learning more about Psalter illumination, as well as about the vita of Christina of Markyate. These ancillary texts contribute to the value of the book as an introduction to the St. Albans Psalter that would be ideal for use in an undergraduate course or even as a first reading in a graduate seminar. Like the two essays, they also combine the strengths of the museum and conservation approach with those of more traditional art historical methods and serve, once more, to remind the reader that the future of art history lies in collaboration between the various sub-disciplines of the field, the incorporation of new technologies into the analysis of objects, and the continuation of efforts to reach out to a broader public to communicate new findings in a compelling and accessible way.

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Author Biography

Alexa Sand

Utah State University