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The Werden Psalter
Romanesque miniatures and initials in high art
Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin Preußischer Kulturbesitz, Ms. theol. lat. fol. 358, Werden, after 1029



Further Pictures


The Werden Psalter belongs to the most significant and widely known medieval de luxe manuscripts kept in the Staatsbibliothek Preussischer Kulturbesitz of Berlin. Because of its lavish decoration it is also called the ”Luxury Psalter” and bears splendid testimony to medieval book illumination. The codex was made at Werden where Saint Liudger, Bishop of Münster, had founded an abbey around the year 800. This Benedictine abbey had its heyday in the 11th century and the Werden Psalter may be looked upon as the artistic expression of a proud monastery.
The manuscript contains a Psalter in an unusual form of text. The contents and artistic decoration of the Werden Psalter are extremely rich and remarkable in all aspects. Its outstanding miniatures, which have always been an object of admiration, its marvellous initials of great importance in the art of book illumination, the ornamental pages and titles as well as the script, are all important features of this unrivalled and perfectly harmonious work.

A sumptuous Psalter, displaying precious luxury

The series of psalms contained in the book is preceded by the author’s portrait depicting the biblical King David in his two functions, as sovereign and as a composer of the psalms (fol. 1v). This topic returns in two further episodes with the decollation of Goliath on fol. 74r and the presentation of his head to King Saul. The third full-page miniature shows Christ having won the fight against the dragon and the lion (fol. 64r).
The strictly formal, symmetrical structure and balanced colouring of the title illustrations convey a feeling of peace and dignified gravity, thus forming a charming contrast to the elaborate ornamental decoration of initials. The initial pages following the miniature pages introduce each subsequent psalm with gold and silver interlace, initials on purple ground and gold and silver coloured capitals.
Furthermore, all 150 psalms as well as the subsequent cantica start with large initials composed of gold and silver interlace. They are complete with particularly elaborate ornamental lines on purple ground with alternating gold and silver majuscules. The text is written without paragraphs in an even, elegant late Carolingian minuscule script; the verse incipits are marked with small purple squares containing gold and silver letters.
A total of 190 interlaced initials consist of geometrically arranged bands, many of them enriched with floral elements. Architecture, dragons, birds, dogs and depictions of humans, embellish the bands in the ornamental letters, making them resourceful miniatures in their own right. They all lend the work an overall impression of invaluable luxury, which only a few other manuscripts may boast.

Text and calendar

The Werden Psalter contains the text of the Psalterium Romanum, an old Latin text which hardly differs from the Vulgate version, as well as related old Latin cantica and several prayers. The manuscript concludes with a comprehensive calendar and two calculation tables for the feast of Easter and the moon dates required for this purpose.
The Werden Psalter is no doubt a luxury Psalter which, rather than serving liturgical purposes, was produced for a high-ranking and wealthy individual. Both the text and decorative apparatus of the book support this assumption.

The binding

The manuscript is protected by a lavishly ornate leather binding which is not the original but was made in the second half of the 16th century. It was decorated using roulettes, i.e. metal rolls which were heated up before rolling them onto the humid leather. In a frame appear the inscribed busts of Fortitudo (Braveness), Prudentia (Prudence), and Iustitia (Justice), as well as a fourth virtue Lucrecia, instead of Temperantia (Moderation) as one would expect in a similar listing.
The facsimile edition of the Werden Psalter is likewise protected by a leather binding which copies this second original binding in its minutest detail.

The commentary volume

The scholarly commentary by Hermann Knaus provides a comprehensive description of the Werden Psalter. It not only discusses the art historical significance of its miniatures and decoration but also explains the contents of the work and analyses the dating and localisation of the manuscript.

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