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Friday, March 30, 2012

The Luttrell Psalter

The Limbourg Brothers, Book of Hours,
circa 1410
Although it's quite difficult, it does happen. Artists become rich and famous. Part of it is talent, part is hard work, part of it experience, part is naked self-promotion, and part of it is just great good fortune. Now, imagine if you will, a time when no artists were famous. In fact, they didn't even sign their work. Moreover, only in the fifteenth century did history and the artists themselves begin to record any names at all. In Italy, for instance, Cimabue is one of the earliest. In France, we know a little about the Limbourg brothers, the illustrators of Duc du Barry's famous Book of Hours (above).  Before that, artists themselves considered their skills as no more important than those of a carpenter, tanner, or jeweler.  Insofar as artists' names were concerned at least, Medieval times justly deserved the otherwise often misused term, "Dark Ages."

St. Nicholas Altarpiece (central panel),
1486-93, Master of the St. Lucie Legend
Most art from the Middle Ages (a more appropriate term), was religious in nature, commissioned by the church itself, or by wealthy landowners for the church, or their own, personal, sanctified purposes  Artists considered their gifts as being  from God. Their paintings and carved sculptures were thus gifts to God, and as such, appropriately deemed anonymous. As work was almost never signed, if a name is associated with a given piece, it's usually by accident...or some moniker made up by a creative art historian hundreds of years later. Belgium, for instance, has a painted altarpiece (left) from slightly later attributed merely to the "Master of the St. Lucie Legend."

The Lutrell Psalter, 1320-40
One of England's greatest art treasures is the Luttrell Psalter. As you might have guessed by now, it was not done by an artist named Luttrell. Sir Geoffrey Luttrell was merely the wealthy Lincolnshire landowner who commissioned it, around 1320. It's an illuminated manuscript considered to have taken approximately ten years to complete. For those not familiar with such things a psalter (the "p" is silent) takes its name from the psalms (songs) and meditations contained within it's pages. In the wide margins around the edge of the tidy calligraphy are delicate decorations, not too unlike what we would call "doodles" today, though infinitely more complex and beautiful. The artist/calligrapher of the Luttrell Psalter is, of course, totally unknown. No other example of his work exists (life spans were distressingly short during this period). Thus we could probably consider the tome his life's work.

Sir Geoffrey Lutrell (detail), The Lutrell Psalter
Of course it's not the Latin psalms that interest us today, but the decorating extrania. The Luttrell Psalter is considered by art and literary experts to be the best surviving pictorial documentation of everyday life in England during the Middle Ages. The most famous illustration (left) depicts Sir Geoffrey Luttrell astride an impossible large horse decked out in Medieval attire. In fact the horse is actually more interesting than Sir Geoffrey. He's unanatomically too long, his legs are skeletal, and, perhaps most amusing, the horse is smiling. Here and elsewhere it's obvious the artist had a delightful sense of humor. Astride this noble steed, Sir Geoffrey accepts his lance from his wife, and a shield from her sister (as determined by heraldry experts). Other pages depict agrarian activities such as plowing, sowing, reaping, young men practicing with their longbows, and most disturbing, the grisley decapitation murder of Sir Thomas Becket some two hundred years earlier. From these fascinating, illustrated tidbits, we can decipher that everyday life was grim (but not without traces of levity) in the 1300s...also hard...and short...and usually anonymous.
Luttrell Family Dining (detail), Luttrell Psalter

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