Marriage feast at Cana, with an historiated initial 'S'(alvum) of Jonah being cast from his boat and praying in the sea, with two grotesques battling in the lower margin, from the Queen Mary Psalter by Marriage feast at Cana, with an historiated initial 'S'(alvum) of Jonah being cast from his boat and praying in the sea, with two grotesques battling in the lower margin, from the Queen Mary Psalter

The Queen Mary Master

Marriage feast at Cana, with an historiated initial 'S'(alvum) of Jonah being cast from his boat and praying in the sea, with two grotesques battling in the lower margin, from the Queen Mary Psalter, c.1310–20, Tinted drawing, 275 x 175 mm, The British Library, London, Royal MS 2 B VII, fol. 168v, © The British Library Board

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In England, there was a taste for large-scale illuminated Psalters throughout the Middle Ages. A remarkable example of this is the Queen Mary Psalter, one of the most extensively illustrated biblical manuscripts ever produced, containing around 1000 images. Prefacing, commenting on, and embellishing the Psalms, the illustrations are justly famous for their artistic sophistication in both coloured drawings and paintings.

The manuscript takes its name not from its original owner but from Queen Mary I (reigned 1553–58), to whom it was presented in 1553 by a zealous customs officer, Baldwin Smith, who had prevented its export from England. Although there is no heraldic or documentary evidence that the manuscript’s initial patron was also royal, the magnitude and quality of its illustrations makes an owner of such status very likely. Moreover, its artist—extraordinarily, all of the illustration seems to have been made by the same person—is now known as the ‘Queen Mary Master’ after this book.

Psalm 69 (Psalm 68 in the Vulgate) is illustrated with an image of Jonah in the initial, presumably on account of the Psalm’s vivid evocation of watery danger:

I have come into deep waters,
 and the flood sweeps over me. (v.2)

Above it we see a scene from the life of Christ. The Psalter has a cycle of these scenes, beginning with the Annunciation at Psalm 1, and continuing throughout the manuscript. For Psalm 69 the scene is of Christ’s first miracle at the wedding at Cana, with the Virgin featured prominently at table next to Christ: an episode in which prayer is abundantly answered (as the ‘parched’ Psalmist (v.3) hopes his prayer will be too (v.13)).

An even more extensive cycle of figurative decoration is presented in the lower margins, or bas-de-pages, below the Psalter text. This decoration consists of tinted drawings, which are often, as on this page, seemingly unrelated to the text above. Here the image is of two bizarre hybrid creatures fighting, one armed with a club and shield. Collectively, the astonishing breadth and beauty of the drawings and paintings create a moving evocation of the world, both sacred and secular. They are a fitting accompaniment to Psalm 69’s hard-won moments of praise:

I will praise the name of God with a song;
  I will magnify him with thanksgiving. …
Let the oppressed see it and be glad;
  you who seek God, let your hearts revive. (vv.30, 32)