Call for St Albans medieval prayer book to return “home”
PUBLISHED: 12:41 17 February 2014
Is an important centuries-old manuscript, considered to be the most beautiful to have survived from 12th Century England, St Albans’ version of the Elgin Marbles?
Stored in Germany for 400 years, but painstakingly created in the city’s Abbey after the Norman Conquest, the St Albans Psalter is unique among medieval prayer books.
And in the wake of the Abbey’s successful hosting of an original Magna Carta for an exhibition last year, questions are being asked about why one of England’s most important manuscripts has not been returned “home”.
The manuscript has been brought into fresh focus with the publication of “The St Albans Psalter: Painting and Prayer in Medieval England” by Kristen Collins, Peter Kidd and Nancy K. Turner.
The authors say they believe the manuscript dates back to about 1130.
It is permanently housed in the cathedral library in Hildesheim, Germany, and was recently removed from its binding for photography and documentation.
The iconic church treasure was taken to the J. Paul Getty Museum over a year ago for mounting and conservation.
While most early medieval prayer books were not illustrated, the St Albans Psalter has more than 40 full-page miniatures and 210 historiated initials – an enlarged letter at the beginning of a paragraph containing a picture.
Decorated with gold and luminous colours, the authors describe the illuminations as being “unparalleled in any surviving English manuscripts from this period”.
It was written and illuminated at St Albans Abbey, which was a significant centre of manuscript production after the Norman Conquest.
The manuscript has five sections including a calendar with feast days and two full-page illustrations of St Alban and King David.
The psalter is described by the authors as, “the most famous, extraordinary and puzzling book produced in 12th-Century England”.
It is believed that Geoffrey Gorron, the Norman abbot of St Albans who ruled from 1119 until 1146, commissioned the psalter for his spiritual mentor, recluse and 12th-Century “holy woman” Christina of Markyate.
But the manuscript was taken to Germany with a group of English Benedictines, who settled south of Hildesheim, in 1643.
The monks took it out of England for safekeeping so it would not be destroyed during the Reformation.
Given its St Albans origins, Eric Roberts, of St Albans Civic Society, said it would be a “feather in the cap for the Abbey” if the psalter could be returned.
He added: “One always hopes things made in St Albans will come back here, to become part of our rich heritage.
“We would always support any initiative that would bring things that were created in St Albans back home, because of the great interest it generates, as proven when the Abbey hosted a Magna Carta exhibition.”
However Canon Kevin Walton said there was no campaign for the manuscript’s return to the Abbey.
He said the cathedral would “struggle” to house such an important piece of history.
While a priceless Magna Carta was briefly hosted last year, there were stringent conditions attached including the temperature it was kept in. A temporary secure pod had to be specially built inside the Abbey to keep the Magna Carta safe.
Canon Walton said that, instead, Hildesheim had presented the Abbey with a “beautiful” copy of the psalter.
He added: “We would love to be able to host [the original] to let people see it at home, but it isn’t possible.”
Asked about who the rightful owner is, he replied that a similar question could be raised about other historic items displayed in London, such as the British Library.
Canon Walton added: “The question of ownership is a very difficult one.”
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