David and Goliath

Bernard Meehan explores a thousand-year-old Irish psalter on which new multispectral imaging has revealed details lost for centuries

The 10th-century Irish psalter held in the British Library with the shelf mark Cotton MS Vitellius F.XI was designed on a grand scale. Like many other volumes in Sir Robert Cotton’s vast collection, it suffered badly in the fire that took hold of his library in 1731. However, paintings of King David in the manuscript, obscured for centuries by fire damage, can now be studied in detail, thanks to the enhanced clarity offered by new multispectral images.

The first and last few leaves are missing, but fifty-nine were salvaged. Framed in single sheets of thick brown paper and bound into a new volume in the 19th century, the leaves contain 137 psalms (of the original 150 hymns and songs that make up the Old Testament Book of Psalms), starting at Psalm 9.17 and ending at Psalm 146.7.

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