Lettering of the Melisende Psalter
Long overdue, but here’s the last installment from my dissertation on lettering which would be lovely to see adapted for use on contemporary western icons. For the last subject, I chose the Melisende Psalter, an extraordinarily beautiful example of ‘East meets West’.
It was written in Latin and thought to have been produced in the scriptorium of the Monastery of the Holy Sepulchre, in the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem sometime between 1131 and 1143. It is attributed to the work of six artists, and a scribe who are thought to be of French or Italian origin as the work reflects their backgrounds.
The introduction features 24 full page miniatures of scenes from the life of Christ, with Greek inscriptions, painted with gold backgrounds.
The manuscript is held in the British Library Manuscripts Department (Ref Egerton MS 1139), London.
The word psalter derives from the old English word psaltere/saltere which came from church Latin Psalterium and simply means ‘a volume containing the Book of Psalms’. These hand written and illuminated books often had other devotional material bound in as well and were most widely owned by wealthy lay persons. They predate the later emergence of the ‘Book of Hours’.
Looking at the letters in this manuscript, it was hard to know where to begin as there are so many examples to choose from. It really is a rich resource for both iconographers and calligraphers alike.
I decided to illuminate a few letters to bring out their qualities as stand alone designs. The letters are confident and stems terminate with a flourish and the double stems add a light but strong quality to the letters. This example is painted with Azurite and Malachite. I have applied a few washes of azurite over the malachite to get this velvety soft green.
This example is painted with lapis lazuli and malachite. I’ve washed a few layers of blue over the green to deepen the green and offset the brightness of the gold.
The letters themselves are on raised gesso – a slightly more flexible mix to the gesso used for icons. This is Patricia Lovett’s recipe and it gives a flexible surface which burnishes up a treat when gold leaf is applied. Patricia’s book ‘Illumination Gold and Colour’ gives more practical guidance on this and is on sale at Cornelissen’s in London (or by mail order) where you can get all the materials needed to paint your own letters. If you do get a chance to visit Cornelissens in the next few weeks, you will see some of the work by the icon diploma students on display in the window – more about this in the next post.
Before I share the letters which I painted from this manuscript, I’d like to give you a taster of one of the illuminations in this psalter as how it’s a useful resource for icon painters.
To see this image and others in the psalter, here’s the link to the British Library page.
I love the movement of the Magi and how their composition directs the viewer’s eye to observe them placing their gifts at the feet of the Christ Child under the stern direction of the angel. Even though these are tiny paintings, they are dynamic and vibrant.
Back to the lettering. I’ve attached an eight page document with a full alphabet of hand painted letters which are an interpretation of the letters in the Melisende Psalter. Feel free to print them off or save them till later for use on your own icons. I would love to see them in use one day! 11-melisende-letters-v1
Thanks for reading,