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Psalter (manuscript cutting)

  • Object:


  • Place of origin:

    Upper Rhine (illuminated)

  • Date:

    ca. 1250 (illuminated)

  • Artist/Maker:


  • Materials and Techniques:

    Water-based pigments and ink and gold leaf on parchment.

  • Museum number:


  • Gallery location:

    Medieval & Renaissance, Room 8, The William and Eileen Ruddock Gallery, case 5

This page comes from a Psalter produced in the middle of the thirteenth century. Psalters contained the Book of Psalms and were usually also accompanied by a calendar showing important saints days according to region, a litany of the saints (invocations to individual saints) and prayers. In monasteries and churches the Psalms were recited over the course of a week during the eight 'canonical hours' into which each day was divided. Psalters were also used for private devotion before Books of Hours began to be made in the thirteenth century.

Psalters might also be richly illuminated with series of full-page miniatures. This example is from a series showing scenes from the life of Christ. In others the life of King David, the supposed author of the Psalms, might be represented.

Physical description

Leaf from a Psalter with full-page miniatures on each side. On the recto are two compartments. The upper compartment depicts the Resurrection, with Christ stepping from the tomb over two sleeping soldiers wearing chain mail. Christ is wearing a pink tunic and blue cloak and his wound marks are visible as red circles with black centres. He carries a white cross and has a red halo. The tomb resembles green marble and the inside is red. In the backround are stylized trees. The lower compartment shows the Ascension, with Christ's lower legs just visible. Two angels flank the top right and left corners. In the background are hills and in the foreground is a crowd of people wearing tunics and cloaks of blue, green, orange and red. The compartments have black outlines. Around this is a pink border then another border composed of blue strips at the sides, top and bottom with mock Cufic lettering in white, and corners of burnished gold. There is another outer border in pink and the whole has a double frame in black outline.

On the verso is Christ in Majesty surrounded by symbols of the Evangelists. Set against a blue background with white stars is a mandorla with a thick border in green, white, red and green. Christ sits on a pink cushion against a blue background wearing red tunic and blue-grey cloak. He has a white halo with red cross and holds a red bound book in his left hand. His right hand is raised in blessing. Beneath him are two rainbows of the same decoration as the mandorla border. In the corners are four roundels, with symbols of the Evangelists, clockwise from top left; 'S. Joh-es', a brown eagle facing right, 'S. Mathevs', wearning blue tunic and yellow cloak facing left 3/4 view, 'S. Lvcas', a brown bull with grey wings facing left, 'S. Marcvs', a brown lion with grey wings facing front. Each is set against a green background, has a red halo and holds a scroll with the saint's name. The compartment has a white outline, a border in red, then a border composed of strips of white lettering on pink with corner triangles in white decoration on blue, and a further red border and double frame in white outline.

Place of Origin

Upper Rhine (illuminated)


ca. 1250 (illuminated)



Materials and Techniques

Water-based pigments and ink and gold leaf on parchment.


Height: 17.8 cm, Width: 12.3 cm, Weight: 1.18 kg

Object history note

Probably from the collection of William Young Ottley (d.1836). It may be the piece at the 1838 sale of the collection described as "The Ascension...supposed to be by Giotto", which was sold for £2.16s.0d. Bought by the Museum in 1894 from Charles Fairfax Murray for £21.

Historical context note

William Ottley (1771-1836) was a major collector of manuscripts and fragments. He declared that he had profited, when in Italy, from the chaos that followed the French invasion of 1796: in fact, he had been collecting there from 1791. There is evidence that Ottley cut up manuscripts that he owned. By 1817, when Dibden's 'Bibliographical Decameron' was published, Ottley's collection of leaves and manuscripts was famous. When sold in 1838, it provided a rich source for English collectors.

Early Italian painters were perhaps Ottley's chief interest; his collection was outstanding in Italian illumination. However, he also collected illumination of other regions.

What kind of manuscript were available on the English market in the 1850s? J.C. Robinson, acquired many pieces of illumination, much of it German or Netherlandish, in Cologne in 1857-8. Foreign sources of supply were significant: the Victorian interest in medieval illumination involved importing large numbers of manuscripts to satisfy the collector.
From 'Vandals and Enthusiasts: Views of Illumination in the Nineteenth Century' by Rowan Watson; Victoria and Albert Museum; 1995

Medieval manuscripts of the psalms were used in liturgical as well as private devotional contexts and often contained ancillary texts such as a calendar, canticles, creeds, a litany of the saints (invocations for deliverance and intercession addressed to the Trinity, the Virgin, angels, apostles, martyrs, confessors, virgins individually and as groups), and prayers. Psalters designed for use in the performance of the divine office often contain other relevant texts, such as the Hours of the Virgin. The Psalter was the principal book for private devotions before the emergence of the Book of Hours in the thirteenth century.

The Divine Office was at the core of the Christian liturgy. It was a cycle of daily devotions - the prayers of the canonical hours - performed by members of the religious orders and the clergy. By the eighth century the cycle of eight canonical hours had been fixed; they were (times approximate), matins (2.30am), lauds (5am), prime (6am), terce (9am), sext (12 noon), none (3pm), vespers (4.30pm) and compline (6pm).

In the non-monastic roman liturgy of the middle ages, all one hundred and fifty Psalms were recited each week, the majority at matins and vespers. The cycle began at matins on Sunday with Psalm 1 and continued at matins on the following days: Psalm 26 was the first recited on Monday, Psalm 38 the first on Tuesday, Psalm 52 the first on Wednesday, Psalm 68 the first on Thursday, Psalm 80 the first on Friday, Psalm 97 the first on Saturday. The cycle for vespers commenced on Sunday with Psalm 109 and continued throughout the week with the remaining Psalms (some Psalms were set aside for other hours). Other divisions of the Psalms are occasionally found. Such divisions would often be given prominence within the decorative programme. Depictions of King David, author of many of the Psalms, frequently introduce the psalter (especially as historiated Beatus initials to Psalm 1).

Prefatory cycles of illumination were often added to Psalters, consisting of scenes from the life of Christ as seen here, or of King David.

Taken from Understanding Illuminated Manuscripts: A Guide to Technical Terms by Michelle P. Brown (London, 1995)

Data taken from notes compiled by Rowan Watson. The full text of the entry is as follows:

Leaf with full-page miniatures on each side: on recto (i) Resurrection with Christ stepping from tomb over sleeping soldiers (ii) scene of Ascension of Christ; on verso, Christ in Majesty with Evangelist symbols

Germany (Upper Rhine). c. 1250

From Ottley Coll? (possibly no.179 in 11 May 1838 sale, "The Ascension,...supposed to be...by Giotto", £2.16.0); bought from Fairfax Murray, 1894 (£21)
Pub: 1908 cat, 12; 1923 cat, 10; Swarzenski, 1936, pp. 47 et seq., 135, figs 681-2'

Descriptive line

Leaf from a Psalter; Resurrection and Ascension on recto and Christ in Majesty on verso; Germany (Upper Rhine); ca.1250

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

Swarzenski, Hanns. Deutsche Buchmalerei des XIII Jahrhunderts. 1936.
'Vandals and Enthusiasts: Views of Illumination in the Nineteenth Century' by Rowan Watson; Victoria and Albert Museum; 1995

Labels and date

Leaf from a Psalter with miniatures of the Resurrection and Ascension of Christ.
Germany, c.1250
Bought by the Museum in 1894 from Charles Fairfax Murray for £21
Mus. no: 800-1894
Probably from the collection of William Young Ottley (d.1836): it may be the piece at the 1838 sale of the collection described as "The Ascension...supposed to be by Giotto", which was sold for £2.16.0d. [1995]
About 1250

The clergy had to know the psalms by
heart. This leaf shows Christ rising from
the tomb and his Ascension. It may have
come from the front of a psalter, from
a set of images that matched events
in the Old Testament with those in the
New Testament.

Upper Rhine (Germany)
Watercolour on parchment,
with burnished gold
Museum no. 800-1894 [2009]


Pigments; Ink; Parchment; Gold leaf



Subjects depicted

Trees; Bull, winged (symbol of Saint Luke); Tomb; Rainbow; Mandorla; Soldiers; Lion, winged (symbol of Saint Mark); Evangelists; Eagle (symbol of St John the Evangelist); Angels; Book; Crowd


Christianity; Manuscripts; Religion; Images Online; Manuscript cutting; Medieval and renaissance

Production Type



Prints, Drawings & Paintings Collection

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