The Macclesfield Psalter

I’m going to cheat by starting with an excerpt from a press release sent out by a British cultural charity, the National Art Collections Fund.

The National Art Collections Fund is spearheading the campaign to save the remarkable 14th-century Macclesfield Psalter for the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

The Macclesfield Psalter is a jewel-like treasury consisting of 252 richly-illustrated pages providing a fascinating record of medieval English humour, and teeming with highly surreal and imaginative marginal illustrations. This exquisite manuscript was sold to the Getty Museum, California, at auction in June for £1,717,335. However, the Government’s export system, which recognised the outstanding importance of the Psalter to this country, gave the UK the chance to match this sum.

As of today, only £96,511 more needs to be raised in order to keep the Macclesfield Psalter on view in the UK for all to see. We have until 10 February 2005 to raise the remaining funds.

Ordinarily, I’m in favor of the Getty buying manuscripts; they’re in my back yard, so to speak. But this is a special case. We know a fair bit about the manuscript; it was almost certainly a local product in every sense of the phrase, created in East Anglia (likely in Goreleston) for a local landowner. There are incredible miniatures, and fascinating marginal figures. The miniatures, which are of such high quality that it’s clear they’re the work of a master, include images of the patron saints of Suffolk and the Gorleston church, localizing the manuscript. The marginal “border” illustrations are particularly interesting because they feature the kind of “world upside down images” that are subversive comments on the main images, or, more likely in this case, (following Dr. Ruth Mellinkoff’s argument) attempts to distract or avert the devil or other evil influences.

The scribe of the Macclesfield Psalter is likely the scribe of the no longer extant Douai Psalter and the Gorelston Psalter. Some illumination by the same artist was part of the Douai Psalter (destroyed inadvertantly because of poor storage during World War I when the Douai Psalter was buried in a zinc box to hide it from enemy troops).

You can read more about the Macclesfield Psalter here, and see some images here, and donate online here. They’ve come very close to matching the Getty price; they’ve enough for 245 of the 252 leaves.

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