Monday, October 05, 2015

The Macclesfield Psalter: A Medieval Norwich Gem

Spike Bucklow's The Riddle of the Image: The Secret Science of Medieval Art (2014) is a scholarly, yet accessible analysis of medieval illuminated manuscripts. It includes a chapter on the recently discovered Macclesfield Psalter, a fascinating gem of medieval Norwich artistry.

The Macclesfield Psalter (Book of Psalms from the Old Testament) was produced around 1330. It contains 252 illustrated pages and is recognized as  an important discovery of a medieval manuscript in Britain. Amazingly, it was only discovered in 2004 after laying unidentified for centuries, when the library at Shirburn Castle was catalogued for sale. Cambridge University's Fitzwilliam Museum tried to buy it, but the initial bid was won by the Getty Museum of Malibu, California, for £1.7 million. The American museum had to gain permission to export the Psalter.  A temporary export bar was placed on the Psalter until 2005. The Fitzwilliam Museum, assisted by an £860,000 contribution from the UK Government's National Heritage Memorial Fund raised the £1.7 million needed to keep the Psalter in the United Kingdom. The Macclesfield Psalter is now owned by the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, however it is not currently on display as it's being restored.

The Macclesfield Psalter is noted for its vivid images, grotesques and humour. Its illustrations include amongst other curiosities, three-headed monsters with hairy noses, a dog in a bishop's costume, an ape doctor giving a false diagnosis to a bear patient, rabbits jousting and riding hounds, an armed knight confronting a giant snail and a giant skate terrorising a man. The newly-coined adjective 'pythonesque', alluding to the surreal animations of Terry Gilliam, is sometimes used to describe the Psalter's bizarre and occasionally obscene images; but in fact it is quite the reverse. Gilliam has recently confessed he copied from a book of medieval marginal illustrations as a source for animations for the 1975 film Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

There was concerned debate about which of the Psalter's pages would be appropriate for Queen Elizabeth II to view when she visited the Fitzwilliam in 2005.

The pages of the Macclesfield Psalter offer an intimate view of the medieval world and the beliefs, prejudices, follies and sentiments of its people. Doctors, priests, minstrels, mummers, farmers, dancers, tricksters and beggars mingle in the margins just as they would have done on the busy streets of medieval Norwich. The livelihoods of Norfolk’s farmers and Norwich’s weavers, seamstresses and dyers were closely connected to the Psalter through the flow of various materials, and as such it is testimony to the highly-developed crafts and skills which thrived in Norwich, a city of European stature in trade, commerce and artistic creativity during the Medieval era. If Norwich had not been a very wealthy city during the 14th century then materials such as gold and saffron would not have been obtainable in the illumination of the Psalter.

According to author Spike Bucklow, a senior research scientist at Hamilton Kerr Institute at the University of Cambridge, the Macclesfield Psalter was created by two equally gifted painters who worked and responded playfully to each other's ideas. Their patron was a member of a rich and powerful Norfolk family whose identity remains unknown. The painters’ workshop, Bucklow conjectures, was located in the parish of Saint George's at Tombland (from old Danish tomb empty and Land Space) in Norwich. The list of pigments found in the illuminations contained nothing that could not be obtained from in a Norwich workshop circa 1335. Indeed, the artist's studio in Tombland was located only a few minutes walk from the nearby church of Saint John Maddermarket, a quite specific allusion to the madder plant, once essential to the dyer's art.

Bucklow notes, 'the two anonymous artists who illuminated the Psalter purposefully left pigments off their palette to challenge and stretch themselves. They restricted their palette with supreme confidence knowing that lovers can see their beloved's beauty in even the most tarnished of mirrors.'

The two artists of the Macclesfield Psalter embedded several layers of meaning into their riddle-like art, some of which remain enigmatic and unsolvable to this day.

Bucklow continues - 'The most obvious part of the Psalter's visual form is its strange collection of everyday and hybrid creatures. Appreciating the form simply involves recognising that the painters wanted the reader to be able to revel in a riot of possibilities, whether apparently normal or abnormal. The sheer exuberant variety of animal, vegetable, mineral and monstrous decoration suggests a limitless imagination.'

However, he rejects the ideas of certain 1960's orientated counter-culture historians who claim that the many bizarre images in the Psalter were the product of painters who had ingested grain infected by ergot, a hallucinogen similar in effect to LSD.

What is certain is that from their everyday dealings in Norwich, the patron and painters of the Psalter were guided by Dominican Friars who eagerly integrated the ancient Classical world view with Christianity. They knew that everything in the material realm was limited and constantly changed either in time or space.

Crucially, throughout The Riddle of the Image Spike Bucklow displays a rare understanding of the alchemical imagination. He explains, for example, the spiritual significance of colour to the medieval artist, in the use of mosaic gold as opposed to 'true gold' thus-

'It is also appropriate that the 'likeness of gold', mosaic gold, was an alchemical pigment attributed to Moses, a legendary Old Testament father of alchemy. As a fabricated alchemical hybrid (of tin, sulphur, quicksilver and sal ammoniac) mosaic gold is also appropriate for the marginal creatures which are of course, also fabricated hybrids.'

Bucklow's understanding of the alchemical imagination, his ability to illuminate the seemingly long lost mind-set of medieval artists, in conjunction with his scientific background along with his ability to discourse in an erudite yet accessible style, makes his The Riddle of the Image: The Secret Science of Medieval Art a fascinating read. Further chapters on the Wilton diptych, the Westminster Retable and the Thornham Parva Retable simply confirm the importance of his ground-breaking research and study.
                              *    *   *   *   *  *  *  *

Neptune's  Creatures of the Deep: Sir Thomas Browne and Jorge Borges, North Sea Magical Realism and  the Macclesfield Psalter. 

An  interest in the strange creatures which once existed in the medieval imagination was revived and catalogued in the 20th century by the influential Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986). In his Book of Imaginary Beings (1967) Borges lists over 120 mythical creatures alluded to in classical antiquity, medieval folklore and world literature, finding it useful to consult the encyclopaedia Pseudodoxia Epidemica (1646-72) written by the Norwich physician and Hermetically-inclined philosopher, Sir Thomas Browne (1605-82) when discussing hybrid creatures such as the Amphisbaena (a two-headed serpent), Basilisks, Mandrakes, and the utterly weird so-called vegetable lamb of Tartary.

And in fact Sir Thomas Browne was one of the Argentine writer's favourite authors. Borges alluded to Browne in almost every one of his books, from his earliest to his last publication in his long life.

There are, I believe, at present two local contemporary artists, both of whom possess rich and fertile imaginations, which in tandem with well-developed painting techniques, are equally adept at dredging bizarre creatures from the depths of their unconscious psyche as inventively as the two Medieval a illustrators of the Macclesfield Psalter, almost seven hundred years ago.

Currently located in coastal towns twenty miles east of Norwich, North Sea Magical Realist artists Peter Rodulfo and Mark Burrell are inspired by the moods, hues and hidden depths of the North Sea, the working life and social culture of their respective coastal town of residence (Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft) as well as marine life in general, amongst other varied sources of inspiration and influence they each have.

Both artists also in their own inimitable way, occasionally conjure imaginary creatures equally bizarre as those in the Macclesfield Psalter, or alluded to in Browne's encyclopaedia Pseudodoxia Epidemica  or even collected by Jorge Borges ; as is evident in Mark Burrell's unsettling fish-man and the cuttle-fish character among the  crew of Peter Rodulfo's recent work, Waiting for the Captain.

'Waiting for the Captain' 120 x 100 cms. Peter Rodulfo (2015)

                       Mark Burrell's 'Fishman'(Unfinished)

Books consulted

* The Riddle of the Image: The Secret Science of Medieval Art
   Spike Bucklow Reaktion Books London 2014

* Julian's Gospel: Illuminating the life and Revelations of Julian of Norwich.  Veronica Mary Rolf  pub. Orbis Books New York 2013
- includes a highly informative  chapter on Medieval Norwich.

* The Book of Imaginary Beings by Jorge Luis Borges (1957 revised and expanded 1968) pub. Penguin 1974

This post for Tchenka, for kindly lending me not only her copy, but also her wisdom;  both of which  I am indebted in gratitude. 

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