Illuminator’s blog: The Alphonso Psalter

Knight Killing a Griffin

Alphonso Psalter (British Library, Additional 24686)

 Margins of gothic manuscripts, especially those produced in England and Flanders, are frequently inhabited by various more or less fantastic creatures and peopled by tiny human and animal figures involved in trades, battles and games. My picture depicting a knight fighting a griffin is inspired by a marginal image in a fabulous royal Psalter. The manuscript is known as the Alphonso Psalter from its intended owner, Prince Alphonso, the son of King Edward I and his Queen Eleanor of Castille. In 1284, Alphonso, the heir apparent to the English throne, was about to marry Margaret, daughter of Florent V, Count of Holland (their coats of arms are depicted on f. 11), and the Psalter was probably commissioned as a wedding gift. Tragically, only months before the planned ceremony the 10-years old Prince died and the work on the manuscript’s decoration stopped on f. 18. Although the illumination of the Psalter was later carried out for Alphonso’s sister, Elizabeth, the most vivid scenes are located in the borders decorated during the first campaign.

Griffin, inspired by British Library, Additional 24686

Medieval bestiaries describe griffins as hybrid creatures, half lions half eagles, living in the mythical Hyperborean mountains. Isidore of Seville claimes that griffins are particularly hostile to horses and attack any man they meet on their way (Etymologies, Book 12, 2:17). The knight on picture has already lost his horse (not reproduced) and is now trying to kill the ferocious beast.


The quality of marginal images in the Alphonso Psalter is very refined. I had to considerably enlarge the size of the composition to achieve the level of detail of the original. The technique combines softly modelled washes (or tinted drawing) with full colours applied in layers.

Have a look at the original at the British Library:


Here is my take on yet another illumination from the famous Alphonso Psalter, a Mermaid mother feeding her little daughter, a quite unusual image of fecundity in this royal betrothal gift.

The finesse of the original was difficult to challenge!

Mermaid, inspired by the Alphonso Psalter, British Library, Additional 24686

Working on Alphonso’s Mermaid was an interesting exercise in medieval painting techniques. The tinted drawing is combined here with the application of gold and silver (raised – the Mermaids’ tails, and flat – the Mermaid mother’s diadem). The result gives some idea of the original look of the painting before the silver had tarnished. The Mermaid’s silver tail in the manuscript is now almost black as the metal oxidised reacting with oxygen from the atmosphere.


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