18.10.08, Collins and Fisher (eds.), St. Albans and the Markyate Psalter

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Lauren Mancia

The Medieval Review 18.10.08

Collins, Kristen and Matthew Fisher, eds. St. Albans and the Markyate Psalter: Seeing and Reading in Twelfth-Century England. Studies in Iconography: Themes and Variations. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, Western Michigan University, 2017. pp. vii, 378. ISBN: 978-1580442589 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Lauren Mancia
Brooklyn College, City University of New York

This volume collects essays that were presented at the Getty-UCLA symposium in February 2014, "Seeing and Reading in Twelfth-Century England," organized in conjunction with the 2013-2014 Getty exhibition Canterbury and St. Albans: Treasures from Church and Cloister.The essays here primarily center around Hildesheim, Dombibliothek, HS St. Godehard 1, which is variously called the St. Albans Psalter, Albanipsalter, Hildesheim Psalter, and, in this volume, the Markyate Psalter (papers given on Canterbury or on the twelfth-century context more generally were not included, unfortunately). This new work on the Markyate Psalter is inspired in part by certain discoveries made by conservators and art historians when the codex was unbound in 2013-2014; but its chief innovation is to approach the Psalter with what the editors call "new imagination" (3), focusing on the "complexity of textual and visual literacies" (4) evidenced in the manuscript. The major question of the volume is: How might the Psalter's images have been read in the Middle Ages? While the answers provided by the essays do not always transcend the specifics of the Markyate Psalter as one might like (especially given the subtitle of the volume), readers interested in a deep dive of the Psalter itself will be thankful for such careful, detailed analyses and for such numerous, glistening, often full-page reproductions of the Psalter's pages and initials.

A handful of the essays from the volume are stand-outs, transcending the Markyate Psalter's particularities (while still remaining competently grounded in them), drawing conclusions valuable to various types of students and scholars of the Middle Ages. T.A. Heslop's "Saint Anselm's 'Grand Tour' and the Full-Page Picture Cycle in the Markyate Psalter" uses the Markyate Psalter to show how medieval artists likely made their own theological choices. Drawing from a variety of visual and theological motifs newly available in England thanks to Anselm's Italian travels and to his newly-penned theological treatises, Heslop argues that the Psalter's artist(s) (particularly the Alexis Master) drew innovative visual parallels between biblical scenes that created original theological meanings and glosses on the Bible. Aden Kumler's "Handling the Letter" shows how the figures of the Psalter's initials showcased their tactile interactions with the words and letters of the psalms, literally mimicking how medievals grappled with the divine writ in their texts. Her essay ultimately argues that such figures asserted artists' privileged place in "laying bare" biblical texts so they might be better "grasped" by their audiences (94). Kerry Boeye's "Voicing the Psalms in the Markyate Psalter: Devotional Experience and Experiments with Images and Words" maps the many ways which the Psalter's pictures illustrate the variety of spoken parts in the psalms that the reader might adopt to best mirror his/her own spiritual position or mood. Rachel Koopmans' "Intercessory Prayer and the Initials of the Markyate Psalter" contextualizes the famous "Christina Initial" for Psalm 105 by evaluating how the Markyate Psalter reflected the importance of intercessory prayer in both the gift and spiritual economies of the twelfth century. And Morgan Powell's "Blindness and Insight, Seeing and Believing: Reading Two Emmaus Sequences from St. Albans" marvels at the inclusion of a rare third scene in the Psalter's Emmaus story, and argues that this enigmatic "Disappearance at Emmaus" illustration builds an argument about visions of Christ and blindness to Christ in the manuscript, and the ways that these visions/blindnesses teach readers about true spiritual sight. These five pieces are valuable to medievalists interested in larger questions of word and image, monastic reading, the psalms in the Middle Ages, or medieval Christian religiosity and prayer, as well as to those studying the Markyate Psalter in detail.

The remainder of the essays in the volume are chiefly close readings of the manuscript itself, and while excellent, often speak best to scholars who themselves might be familiar with the details on the Markyate Psalter's quire structure, date, historiography, etc. Nigel Morgan's essay "The Patronage and Ownership of the Markyate Psalter" puts forward new hypotheses about the Psalter's commissioner (Abbot Richard d'Aubigny), initial owner (Amice d'Aubigny), and the date at which the Psalter was received by Christina Markyate (ca. 1124/30-31), briefly comparing these newly proposed circumstances of production to those of the Shaftesbury Psalter. Zrinka Stahuljak's "La Vie de Saint Alexisand the Alexis Quire in the Crusading Context" reads the texts and images of the Alexis Quire through the lens of European anxieties at the end of the First and beginning of the Second Crusade. J.J.G. Alexander's "The St. Albans Psalter Monograph of 1960: Fifty Years Later" reviews the circumstances of the landmark 1960 publication on the Markyate Psalter alongside his own historiographical insights, personal anecdotes, and some very brief comments on Psalter scholarship's future. In "The Psalmist and the Saint: David, Alexis, and the Construction of Meaning in a Twelfth-Century Composite Manuscript," Kathryn Gerry discusses how the Psalter's meaning builds as a composite manuscript, showing, for instance, how military battles depicted in the Alexis Quire transform psalm initials into spiritual battlegrounds. An article by Kristen Collins and Nancy K. Turner, "The Repainting of Psalm 101 and Meaningful Change in the Markyate Psalter," reports that close examination enabled by the unbinding of the Psalter shows that certain iconographies were radically altered between the drawing and painting of the manuscript. These alterations, in Collins and Turner's view, reflect theological anxieties about the doubt demonstrated by Christ in the garden of Gethsemane. Martin Kauffmann's essay on Bodleian MS Gough Liturg. 2 (the "Gough Psalter," one of two comparandadiscussed in the volume) shows how pictures and prayers worked complimentarily to infuse prayer and biblical narrative with emotion as well as instruction; and Kristen Collins' essay on Getty Ms. 101 (the "Getty Vita Christi"; the second of the two) shows how an English Romanesque manuscript's idiosyncratic, text-less images reflected the wider socio-political and intertextual contexts of a particular time and place.

There is thus a bifurcation evident in the volume between works chiefly pertinent to specialists of the Psalter and a handful of essays useful to both Psalter specialists and scholars of "seeing and reading in twelfth-century England" (the volume's subtitle). Even readers just looking for a comprehensive updated series of studies on the Markyate Psalter may find gaps--there are few words on gender here, for instance, or on the Psalter's text and paleography, or on wider practices of monastic reading (of both images and words) as they may inform Psalter specialists. But for scholars picking and choosing which essays may be most useful to their own interests, or looking for gorgeous illustrations to examine for their own work or teaching, St. Albans and the Markyate Psalter: Seeing and Reading in Twelfth-Century England will not disappoint.

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