Leaves of Gold: Treasures of Manuscript Illumination fron Philadelphia Collections
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BIBLES: Introduction | Gallery Guide
BOOKS OF HOURS: Introduction | Gallery Guide
PSALTERS: Introduction | Gallery Guide
LITURGICAL: Introduction | Gallery Guide
LITERARY: Introduction | Gallery Guide

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Introduction to Psalters


Historiated Initial D showing the anointing and coronation of David. Free Library of Philadelphia, Lewis E 185, f.52

Psalters are books that contain, in a single volume, the 150 biblical poems known as psalms. The psalms (derived from the Greek word psalmos, meaning "song") are short, lyrical passages written in the first person. They are directed to God and express moods and emotions ranging from praise to distress, triumph to lament.

Due to their varied content and versatility, individual psalms are often employed as prayers, both in public worship and in private devotion. In the Middle Ages, the psalms were sung and recited by all members of society, but Psalters were especially popular among lay men and women who used them both at home and at church. Psalters also contained devotional material like canticles (songs), a calendar, and a litany of saints.

Children learned to read from Psalters because the Latin of the psalms was easy to understand and provided them with prayers that they might call upon throughout their lives.

Two distinct kinds of scenes are depicted in Psalters. Events from the life of David—the Old Testament king and ancestor of Christ who is considered the author of most of the psalms—are usually illustrated at the beginning of individual psalms. Elaborate series of miniatures portraying scenes from the life of Christ, who was thought to be prophesied in the psalms, often adorn the front of richly illuminated Psalters.

The psalms that are quoted here correspond to the Douay Rheims version of the Bible.

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Leaves of Gold is a collaborative exhibition organized by the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Philadelphia Area Consortium of Special Collections Libraries. All materials on this site are copyright 2001 the Philadelphia Museum of Art except as indicated herein.