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The Luttrell Psalter
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. Before that, artists themselves considered their skills as no more important than those of a carpenter, tanner, or jeweller. At least in so far as artists names are concerned, Medieval times justly deserve the otherwise often misused term, "Dark Ages."

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, deemed appropriately 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. Italy, for instance, has a painted crucifix from this era attributed merely to the "Master of the St. Lucie Legend."

One of England's greatest art treasures is the Luttrell Psalter. As you may 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. And for those not familiar with such things, a psalter (the "p" is silent) takes its name from the psalms (songs) and meditations contained within its 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 back then). Thus we could probably consider this tome his life's work.

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 depicts Luttrell astride an impossible large horse, both decked out in Medieval attire. In fact the horse is actually more interesting than Sir Geoffrey is. 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 humour. 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 practising with their longbows, and most disturbing, the grisly decapitation murder of Sir Thomas Becket some two hundred years earlier. From these fascinating, illustrated tidbits, we can decipher that everyday life in the 1300s was grim (but not without traces of levity)...also hard...and short...and usually anonymous.

Contributed by Lane, Jim
12 June 2000


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