The Amesbury Psalter

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Samuel anointing David

God speaks to Samuel, telling him that one of Jesse’s seven sons will be the next king of the Israelites. God chooses David, the youngest, who is anointed by Samuel.

Solomon’s judgement

Two women come before King Solomon, both having had babies. One baby has died and both women claim that the surviving child is theirs. Solomon announces that he will cut the baby in two and the women can have half each. The true mother weeps and says the other woman can have the child, rather than it being put to the sword. Solomon then knows that she is the real parent.

Jonah and the great fish

Jonah, having disobeyed God’s instructions to preach to the Ninevites, takes a boat to Tarshish instead. God sends a storm, and the sailors cast Jonah overboard, having drawn lots as to whom they think has caused the storm: the storm then abates. Jonah is swallowed by a great fish, and remains in its belly for three days and three nights until it regurgitates him safely onto dry land.

Jacob’s ladder

Jacob, having defrauded his brother Esau, flees to Haran to escape this brother’s anger. He sleeps in the desert, using stones as a pillow, and dreams of a ladder with angels descending from and ascending into heaven. God appears to him and promises to give Jacob and his descendants the land upon which he lay. Convinced it is a holy place, Jacob assembles the stones into a pillar, anoints them, and names the place ‘Bethel’ meaning ‘The House of God’.


Pilate has organised soldiers to guard the tomb of Jesus in case any of his followers should try to steal his body. On the third day, while the soldiers are apparently sleeping, Jesus rises from the dead.

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There are, in all, eleven larger historiated initials at the liturgical divisions. They each have gold grounds and depict biblical scenes. In comparison with the full-page miniatures, the artist has been able to extend beyond formulaic requirements; each illustration contains endearing points of detail suggesting someone observant of his environment.

We have five of the initials:

The Amesbury Psalter is an illuminated manuscript of psalms, and is currently considered the “finest medieval manuscript” in The Codrington Library at All Souls College, Oxford. Although there is no firm evidence that the psalter was made by the religious community at Amesbury, it was owned by the Benedictine abbey there before being transferred to the patrons at St George’s Chapel Windsor after the Reformation.

The manuscript is made from membrane, and is made up of 186 illustrated pages. Among the illustrations are four full-page ‘miniatures’ with gold backgrounds, and eleven ‘historiated’ initials, of which we have images below of five. Additional illustrations throughout are in blue, red, green and gold pigment, and are often bird or animal motifs. Analysis of the text shows that the whole document was written by one person, although no signatures exist to identify the author.

In 1989 the book was repaired (using 19th century sewing stations) by Nicholas Pickwoad, whose detailed conservation report is kept with the manuscript. It reveals that the 19th century binding was the book’s third binding.​


The Annunciation has a gold ground with a tile pattern. The Virgin is on the right, the angel on the left. The Virgin is in a blue robe decorated with faint white flowers and gold lace, a claret-coloured cloak, white veil, and holds a book in her left hand. The dove is descending in a vermilion flash of fire above her head. The angel, attired in a blue cloak over a white robe, and cloak ornamented with white flowers, bears a scroll “AVE MARIA GRATIA PLENA DOMINUS TECUM”. The background is of a walled and towered town, the colouring and style suggesting Fontevrauldine overtones.

The Virgin and Child is, again, on a gold ground this time with a foliage pattern. The Virgin is seated on an elaborate throne, or perhaps faldistorium, suckling the Child. Her dress is as in the Annunciation but now includes a golden girdle with buckle. At her feet are a lion and dragon. The canopy of the throne is crowned by two censing angels. On the left, a nun in Fontevrault habit is kneeling and holding up a scroll inscribed “AVE MARIA GRAC[A PL]ENA D[OMI]N[U]S TECUM BENE[DICTA]”.

The Crucifixion has Christ on a lopped branch style green cross. His blue cloak, decorated with white flowers and lined in amber, is gathered round his loins. On the left is the Virgin, dressed as in the Annunciation but with a crimson-lined cloak. On the right, St John, dressed in an orange cloak lined bright green, over blue cloth. At the top of the cross is a scroll inscribed “IHC NAZARENUS REX IVDEORUM”. Above the left arm of the cross is the sun, red-faced, male; above the right, the moon, white faced, female. At the corners of the framework are four circular medallions with censing angels in kneeling positions. At the sides, joining in the patterned bands, are four semi-circular medallions. At the top is Christ, flanked by two angels, holding the dove. Left, the Church crowned, with cross and banner, holding up a chalice. To the right the Synagogue, with broken crescent banner and inverted vessel, the contents of which is poured out. At the bottom, souls in purgatory, or Adam and two others. Following a Germanic tradition, blood from Christ’s feet trickles down onto the lower figures.

The Christ in Majesty has the unusual feature of Christ holding a chalice, something quite rare. Again on a gold ground, this time with a tendril pattern. In a vesica, on an elaborate cushioned chair, Christ is holding up his right arm, blessing. An orb, with the alpha, omega and Greek Church symbol between his feet. He is dressed in a claret-coloured cloak, lined dark red, over a blue robe with girdle, and white under garment. In the four corners are emblems of the four evangelists. Top left the angel is bearing a scroll “Ss MATHEUS”; top right is an eagle with a scroll in his beak “Ss IOHANNES”; bottom left, a lion with wings, having a scroll “Ss MARCVS” and, bottom right, a winged bull having the scroll “Ss LVCAS”. Below the painting is a Fontevrault nun, kneeling in front of a lectern, on which is an open psalter book showing the Beatus page.