The Christina of Markyate Psalter – A Modern Legend: On the Purpose of the St. Albans Psalter
By Bernhard Gallistl
Concilium medii aevi, Vol. 17 (2014)
Introduction: The early 12th century psalter manuscript of St. Godehard in Hildesheim, Germany, has attracted much attention due to the richness of its illustration. The book is generally regarded as the earliest surviving masterpiece of Anglo-Norman painting. As to the book’s intended purpose, scholars have agreed that what we are dealing with is a “personal”, rather than a communal book, and “not a choir-book for the Divine Office”. The manuscript as a whole has mainly been associated with the anchoress Christina, later the prioress of Markyate, who during the psalter’s time of creation worked in the vicinity of St. Albans. This woman’s importance for the book was estimated so highly that it was even named after her the “Psalter of Christina of Markyate”, “Christina of Markyate’s Psalter”, and recently “The Christina of Markyate Psalter”.
Everything we know about this woman has been related to us in the “Life of Christina of Markyate”, which was discovered in the British Library by Charles H. Talbot and published in 1959. In the preface Talbot already drew a connection with the St. Albans Psalter: “The conclusion seems to be that the psalter, if not originally destined for Christina, eventually found its way into her hands and was altered perhaps and completed during the course of its preparation to conform to her interests”. In the complete overview of the St. Albans Psalter, published the year after, Otto Pächt and Charles Dodwell established the idea of a work commissioned for Christina by abbot Geoffrey of St. Albans (1119–1146). From thereon, all research has regarded Christina as the undisputed addressee, owner, or inspiration for the book. And if this argument was ever questioned, then only partially. In the psalter itself, however, her name only appears in the calendar among the obituaries of other deceased. But then what is the synopsis with the biography of this woman based on?
The main reasons for this assumption were certain parallels of the St. Alexius’ legend and narrative accounts of Christina’s life. The quire preceding the actual psalm part includes, among other things, the text of the legend of St. Alexius. Just like this saint from 5th century Syria, Christina had decided against marriage and instead chosen to lead a spiritual life. Pächt therefore deducted that she was the reason Geoffrey had the Alexius legend included. The spiritual friendship between the abbot and the Prioress related in the “Life of Christina of Markyate”, which was regarded as suspicious by the confrères, furthermore led to the attribution of the book’s picture contents to such biographical connections. Circular reasoning further solidified the image of Christina as the female spiritus rector of the psalter manuscript.
See also: The St Albans Psalter now online