The Great Canterbury Psalter

The Great Canterbury Psalter f. 173r, psalm 97 Sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done wonderful things


f. 173r, psalm 97 Sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done wonderful things

The exaltation of the redeeming Lord (v. 4, Jubilate Deo omnis terra: cantate, et exultate, et psallite // Sing joyfully to God, all the earth; make melody, rejoice and sing) explains the choice of the two theophanic images in the space left empty at the bottom of the folio. The first extols the figure of the Virgin as the mother of the Saviour sent by God (v. 2, Notum fecit Dominus salutare suum // The Lord hath made known his salvation; v. 3, Viderunt omnes termini terrea salutare Dei nostri // All the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God). This is done by introducing an innovative type into Catalan Gothic painting which clearly combines the new model of the Virgin of Humility with the old model of the Madonna Lactans. The prototype of these Virgins, normally shown sitting on cushions on the floor and breastfeeding Jesus, must have originated in Italy and entered Catalonia in the 1330s, even though it was thought for many years that the model may have arisen from Simone Martini’s participation in the lunettes in Notre-Dame-des-Doms in Avignon – which could not have entered Catalan painting until the latter half of that century. In fact, the miniature in the psalter can be understood to be a version of the early Catalan representations of the theme that was probably transposed to panels. The cushions that became commonplace as a seat for Mary are replaced here by greyish clouds. The six praying angels behind them also evoke the most characteristic arrangement of the Virgin of Humility type in reredos painting, since winged creatures are not usually absent from them either. The lower area features a large, empty space. This focuses attention on the embrace of the Mother and her Son, wrapped in an orange cloth and breastfeeding, whilst a group of old men on the left and a group of adolescents on the right play musical instruments to glorify them both. The existence of these two planes suggests a combined Ascension and Assumption since it is an elevation of the Virgin with the Child in her arms, an atypical and therefore particularly interesting situation. The old musicians recall one of the orchestras of David, a leading musician who prefigures Christ, whilst the group of young men evokes the comments made about f. 166r. The enthroned Madonna Lactans in the Hours of Marie of Navarre (f. 15v) which, despite not matching the Virgin of Humility model, can be compared with the one on this folio, is the work of Arnau Bassa. It is reasonable to think that the son may have contributed to the book’s closing miniatures, possibly his first steps in the realm of the miniature. However, the father’s personality would still have left its stamp clearly upon him and other possible assistants, affecting aspects of the drawing, the composition and finishes.
In the second compartment of this illustration, conceived of as a diptych, Christ displays his wounds by a strategic arrangement of the pink and green cloak covering part of his body. He is situated like a judge upon a mandorla that seems to have compressed the celestial circle into the typical almond shape and, like the Virgin, is accompanied by six angels praying. The main figures depicted in the lower register, however, are twelve seated counsellors, the twelve apostles, in fact, presided over by St Peter and St Paul, showing several open books, most of which face the spectator. The apostles are comparable with others who have appeared in the course of this manuscript. Whilst not lacking the most characteristic traits that help identify them here and elsewhere, a change in the proportions of Peter, John and Paul can be seen, revealing a sweeter and gentler way of painting faces.

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