The Victory of Abraham over the Four Kings from Psautier dit de saint Louis by Master of Abraham

Master of Abraham

The Victory of Abraham over the Four Kings from Psautier dit de saint Louis, 1270–1274, Illuminated manuscript, 205 x 150 mm, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des manuscrits, Paris, Latin 10525, fol. 5v, Bibliothèque Nationale de France ark: / 12148 / btv1b8447877n

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An Allegory of Royal Victory

Commentary by

The illumination appears in the ‘Psalter of St Louis’. It is a sumptuous illuminated manuscript produced in the mid-1260s for the Crusader king of France. Seventy-eight full-page miniatures depict episodes from the Old Testament, followed by a liturgical calendar and the Psalms. The depiction of the battle of Abraham (still Abram at this point) is preceded by the drunkenness of Noah (Genesis 9:20–27; fol. 4r) and followed by the encounter between the patriarch and Melchizedek (Genesis 14:17–24; fol. 6r).

The scene here of the defeat of the four kings, enclosed within a foliate frame, is identified by an inscription on the recto of the folio. A gothic building with buttresses, pediments and rose windows provides the background of the action. The image is densely populated: at the centre is Abram, taller than the other figures, with a long, bifurcated white beard. He is holding the head of one of the kings, ready to impart the fatal blow with his long sword. The other kings, identified by their crowns, have already been killed, as well as many of their soldiers behind them. In the background, white tents identify the camp where the kings have been surprised overnight by Abram’s attack (v.15). Two shields are visible in the forefront, one, on the right, presents the threatening symbol of a black dragon, while the other, immediately behind Abram, is decorated with white fleur-de-lis, the coat of arms of the royal house of France.

The shield emphasizes the relevance of this scene in a private, royal psalter. The pseudo-Capetian arms (of the dynasty that ruled France since 987) suggests that this is an allegory of royal victory: even though Abraham was not a king, he is ‘the founder of that nation from which all Christian royalty derives’ (Stahl 2008: 171). Thus he is someone with whom a medieval Christian monarch, both bellicose and devout, would be keen to identify.

 

References

Stahl, Hervey. 2008. Picturing Kingship: History and Painting in the Psalter of Saint Louis, (University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press)