The Psalter of Blanche of Castile

A masterpiece of French Gothic art, the Latin Psalter of Blanche of Castile was produced in Paris in the first third of the thirteenth century by an anonymous master using tempera, ink, and gold leaf on parchment. The book was most likely commissioned by or for Blanche of Castile (1188–1252), the mother of Louis IX, whom it passed to after her death (which is why it is sometimes referred to jointly as the Psalter of Saint Louis and Blanche of Castile—not to be confused with the even more lavish Paris Psalter of Saint Louis that followed it). Whoever the original owner was, she is depicted praying before an altar on page 122v.

[What is a psalter?]

Discussing the transition from Romanesque to Gothic art and the new structures surrounding it, an online Encyclopedia of Art History states,

It is no accident that this new style of Christian art was born in France. The University of Paris was the intellectual centre of Europe throughout the thirteenth century, and from the time of St Louis (1226-70) the French court became increasingly important. Students and scholars from all over the continent flocked to Paris to learn and to discuss scholarly matters. Knights returning from the Crusades introduced Eastern theory and science. [This partially explains the unusual frontispiece depicting three geometers in the Psalter of Blanche of Castile, below.] With the ascendancy of the university, the importance of monasteries as centres of book illustration and illumination declined. Commercial guilds were founded and books were produced for private ownership. Large ceremonial books, lavishly illuminated and ornamented with jewellery, became less common and we must follow the stylistic developments principally in Psalters, which the highborn laity made their own.

An alternate name for the manuscript is the Sainte-Chapelle Psalter, due to the fact that it was preserved in the Sainte-Chapelle treasury from 1335 to the end of the eighteenth century, when it was moved to the Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal, now part of the Bibliothèque nationale de France. Louis IX built the Sainte-Chapelle (“Holy Chapel”) inside the royal palace complex between 1238 and 1248 to serve as a private devotional space and to house the thirty-plus relics of Christ he had bought, including what he believed to be the crown of thorns and a fragment of the cross.

Among the 192 pages of the Psalter of Blanche of Castile are twenty-seven full-page miniatures, twenty-two of which are divided into interlocking medallions containing distinct narrative episodes from the Old and New Testaments (mostly). All of them are reproduced below, sourced from https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b7100723j (Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal MS 1186 réserve). Folio numbers and subjects are provided as captions.

This is one of thousands of Christian illuminated manuscripts that have been digitized by libraries and museums around the world, enabling people like you and me to be nourished by their beauty. People often ask me how I incorporate visual art into my devotional practice, and one way is by simply paging (digitally) through painting cycles from old books, letting the medieval imagination be my guide through God’s story of redemption. My eyes do the reading, my soul rests. There’s no rigid program I follow, and no particular goal, but I find I am often led to respond in prayer. Try it!

Astronomers (Sainte-Chapelle Psalter)
Fol. 1v: An astronomer with a looking tube takes the bearings of a star with the alidade of an astrolabe. One assistant holds open a book with Arabic ciphers (a star chart?) while the other records the results in Latin.
Fall of the Rebel Angels (Sainte-Chapelle Psalter)
Fol. 9v: The Fall of the Rebel Angels
Creation of Eve (Sainte-Chapelle Psalter)
Fol. 10r: The Creation of Eve

Temptation and Fall (Sainte-Chapelle Psalter)
Fol. 11v: God forbids Adam and Eve to eat of the tree of knowledge; Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit
Expulsion from Paradise (Sainte-Chapelle Psalter)
Fol. 12r: The Expulsion from Paradise; Eve spinning wool and Adam digging the earth
Noah's Ark with the Sacrifice of Isaac (Sainte-Chapelle Psalter)
Fol. 13v: Noah’s Ark; The Sacrifice of Isaac

[Why does Moses have horns?]

Ten Commandments and Golden Calf (Sainte-Chapelle Psalter)
Fol. 14r: The Giving of the Ten Commandments; The Golden Calf
Tree of Jesse (Sainte-Chapelle Psalter)
Fol. 15v: The Tree of Jesse
Annunciation and Visitation (Sainte-Chapelle Psalter)
Fol. 16r: The Annunciation; The Visitation

In the lower scene on the following page, even the sheep eagerly incline their heads to receive the announcement that a Savior has been born!

Nativity (Sainte-Chapelle Psalter)
Fol. 17v: The Nativity; The Annunciation to the Shepherds
Adoration of the Magi and Presentation (Sainte-Chapelle Psalter)
Fol. 18r: The Adoration of the Magi; The Presentation in the Temple

I’m not sure who the naked man on the column is supposed to represent in the illumination below; my best guess is that he is an idol being toppled from his pedestal, along with a demon, since God has come in Christ to assert his supremacy over them. But he doesn’t much look like a god, and he doesn’t look like a demon either, so I’m not sure. He looks too old to be one of the children murdered by Herod. Any other guesses?

Flight to Egypt and Massacre (Sainte-Chapelle Psalter)
Fol. 19v: The Flight to Egypt; The Massacre of the Innocents
Baptism and Temptation (Sainte-Chapelle Psalter)
Fol. 20r: The Baptism of Christ; The Temptations in the Wilderness
Raising of Lazarus and Entry into Jerusalem (Sainte-Chapelle Psalter)
Fol. 21v: The Raising of Lazarus; The Entry into Jerusalem
Last Supper (Sainte-Chapelle Psalter)
Fol. 22r: Jesus Washes the Disciples’ Feet; The Last Supper
Betrayal and Flogging (Sainte-Chapelle Psalter)
Fol. 23v: The Betrayal of Judas; The Flagellation
Crucifixion (Sainte-Chapelle Psalter)
Fol. 24r: The Crucifixion; Ecclesia and Synagoga; The Deposition

[Who are Ecclesia and Synagoga?]

Resurrection (Sainte-Chapelle Psalter)
Fol. 25v: The Empty Tomb; The Harrowing of Hell
Resurrection Appearances (Sainte-Chapelle Psalter)
Fol. 26r: Noli me tangere; The Incredulity of Thomas

Above, it’s interesting to see these two Resurrection appearances on the same page, because in his encounter with Mary Magdalene, Jesus says, “Don’t touch me” (Latin Noli me tangere)—or more accurately, “Don’t cling to me”—whereas to Thomas he says, “Touch me!” (“Put out your hand, and place it in my side”). That’s because the faith formation of these two disciples required personalized approaches: Mary needed to loosen her grip on Jesus’s physical presence, but Thomas needed to strengthen his. Mary’s desire to commune with Christ was so strong that he needed to prepare her for his inevitable ascension to the Father, reminding her that spiritual communion would still be possible; Jesus’s instruction to refrain from embracing him was his way of helping to tutor her in this new mode of interacting. Thomas, on the other hand, was incredulous that Christ had risen bodily from the dead, and he needed the physical presence of his teacher and the gentle instruction to look and to touch so that he could confirm what had only been rumored and thenceforth boldly profess this gospel truth.

Ascension and Pentecost (Sainte-Chapelle Psalter)
Fol. 27v: The Ascension; Pentecost

The Virgin Mary is usually shown in the center of Pentecost paintings, but in this one, that spot is occupied by a tonsured man holding a book, one of thirteen in the group. Medieval monks and clerics in the West typically wore this kind of haircut, which was believed to have originated with St. Peter, but I can’t say with confidence who this central figure is supposed to represent.

Christ Enthroned (Sainte-Chapelle Psalter)
Fol. 28r: Christ in Majesty, surrounded by the Tetramorph

[What is the tetramorph?]

Coronation and Death of the Virgin (Sainte-Chapelle Psalter)
Fol. 29v: The Coronation of the Virgin; The Dormition (Death of the Virgin)

One of the titles Catholics give to Mary is Regina Coeli, “Queen of Heaven,” and she has been represented in art as such many times throughout history. I myself am not too receptive to this iconography, but when I consider her as a representative of the church (Catholics call her Mater Ecclesiae), the bride of Christ, it helps.

David Dictating the Psalms (Sainte-Chapelle Psalter)
Fol. 30v: David dictating the Psalms; David and his subjects

I can’t tell whether the bottom scene in the previous image refers to a specific biblical episode. I’m assuming the crowned figure is David (Louis IX had not yet become king), and the men he’s interacting with are wearing “Jewish hats.”

Death of the Damned (Sainte-Chapelle Psalter)
Fol. 168r: Death of the Damned (bottom half-medallion)

I don’t know what’s going on in the top three half-medallions above. In the right one there appears to be a murder, and said murderer is in the bottom scene being tormented by demons, his soul carried off to hell. If you recognize the other two episodes, please let me know!

Resurrection of the Dead (Sainte-Chapelle Psalter)
Fol. 169v: The Resurrection of the Dead; The Weighing of Souls

Though scales are occasionally used in the Bible as a symbol of God’s righteous judgment, I find the “weighing of souls” (psychostasis) motif in Christian iconography to be theologically problematic (from a Reformed perspective), because one’s admission to heaven is based not on a hefty amassing of one’s own good works but on the good work of Christ on the cross. We are all found wanting when our personal merits are weighed against God’s perfect standard of righteousness! But those to whom Christ’s merit has been imputed (those who confess him as Lord and enter into his death and resurrection) will find themselves in perfect balance with God’s law on the last day, because God’s mercy has calibrated their pan.

While I don’t expect images to carry the same precision as verbal or written theology, and I certainly don’t expect pre-Reformation images like this one to propound Reformation teachings, I do try to be theologically discerning when it comes to viewing images. Images are not theologically neutral! They communicate. That doesn’t mean we should stick to viewing images only from our own tradition (by no means! what a richness we would forgo) but, rather, couple the practice with the reading of scripture and even discussion in community. What will the Last Judgment look like, according to scripture? How does the artist imagine the event? What symbols does he use? Where do scales appear in the Bible? How do God’s mercy and justice interrelate? Does the artist convey both attributes, or is one given prominence over the other? What is the eternal consequence of our deeds, good and bad?

I would say the image above captures the ongoing spiritual battle between good and evil, how Satan tries to drag us down, and warns that we will all be called to account someday. I would push back against the suggestion that our eternal destination is dependent on our good works (signified by a stack of pebbles) outweighing our bad. But the scale provokes associations of measures, which reminds us that God has a standard of holiness, a known weight, and that living by that standard has worth.

Heaven and Hell (Sainte-Chapelle Psalter)
Fol. 171v: The Righteous in the Bosom of Abraham; The Mouth of Hell

To preview and/or purchase a facsimile edition of the Psalter of Blanche of Castile, click here.

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