The Psalter of Ligugé

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A project in calligraphy and illumination by Jane Sullivan, in collaboration with the monks of

the Abbaye of Saint Martin in Ligugé (86240) France

The Book of Psalms (or Psalter), in the Bible’s Old Testament, is made up of 150 sacred songs attributed to King David (a tradition that was established long after their original composition). These texts represent a precious source of profound wisdom, mystical longing, praise and adoration, all rooted in the most authentic spirituality of Judaism. These Psalms were quickly adopted, soon after its foundation, by the early Christian Church, owing to their messianic prophecies and messages which align perfectly with the teachings of the Gospels. Moreover, Jesus himself frequently used lines from the Psalms in his own lifetime, even on the Cross, and he expounded upon their allusions to his mission even after his Resurrection (on the road to Emmaüs). From the Middle Ages to our own time, the Psalms have remained the principal texts of daily Divine Offices in all the monasteries of Christendom.

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Hundreds of manuscripts containing the Psalms were copied in calligraphy during the Middle Ages, from luxurious illuminated codices to small pocket-sized volumes for priests or monks to use privately or when travelling. Important clients often commissioned Psalters in richly decorated lettering for their private devotion, and learned scribes sometimes executed double or even triple Psalters, containing parallel texts from different sources or linguistic traditions.

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Since the invention of printing, the art of calligraphy has become a more modest pass-time and a more personal form of fine art. Very few full texts of sacred scripture have been calligraphed in our modern age. However, several years ago, Saint John’s Monastery in the USA ordered an entire Bible to be written by hand (including, of course, the Psalms) by a team of internationally renowned calligraphers headed by Donald Jackson, scribe to England’s Royal Family.

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In the 1970s the monks of Saint Martin’s Abbey in Ligugé, France, turned their attention to a new monastic version of the Psalter, faithful to the original texts in Hebrew and Greek, and well-adapted to the psalmody of the Liturgy for the Divine Office. After several years of work by a team of exegetes, liturgists and theologians, this new French version was published by Editions CLD (Chambray-lès-Tours) in 1986, and re-edited in 2012 by Editions Saint-Léger (Saumur).

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In 2014, Jane Sullivan proposed to the Abbey of Saint Martin the creation of an Illuminated Psalter, using their own translation. The idea of writing out all the of Psalms in calligraphy with her own style of illumination, had long been envisaged by this artist with strong Christian beliefs, influenced by the imaginative artistic tradition of the Celtic world and by her own love of fantasy and faërie art. Jane is also an academic, holding advanced diplomas in Palaeography and specialised in the manuscripts from the Insular tradition (the islands of Ireland and Great Britain). Her desire to write and illuminate the 150 Psalms is equally inspired by her own spirituality and by her conviction that such a slow, meticulous work on such an ambitious and lengthy project would represent, for her, a unique occasion to experience the medieval scribe’s practice of contemplative, and deeply rewarding, sacred work.

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The Abbey of Ligugé welcomed Jane’s proposal with enthusiasm, offering her a charming and bright studio beside the Church, in the courtyard of the Abbey itself. Jane has worked in this studio, open to visitors to the Abbey, since December 2014. The « Psalter of Ligugé » is not intended to be a « false medieval manuscript », but rather Jane approaches her work as an artist of the 21st century, using high-quality gouaches, inks and paper, creating an original work, page by page, which is intended to be scanned and eventually published in the form of a book. As she advances, portions of the Psalter are published in A4 format (the originals are A3) in a spiral binding The originals are available to view in Jane’s studio. It is expected that the project will be completed in two or three years (Jane works mainly in the afternoons, reserving her mornings for work in her home studio on other commissions and projects).

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The first 80 psalms executed in Ligugé are available as 5 spiral-bound volumes. Jane  regularly publishes the psalter in the form of booklets similar to the first five. At the conclusion of the project, an edition « de luxe » of the entire Psalter will be produced.

The A4 volumes are on sale in the Abbey’s boutique, or can be purchased in the online shop or by contacting the artist directly.

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Jane usually works from 2.30 pm to the hour of Vespers (6 o’clock weekdays, 4.30 Sundays), from Wednesday to Sunday each week. She is delighted to welcome you to see her work, and to discuss the project with her!

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In June 2015 Jane presented the first 18 Psalms, then just completed, to the Abbey community. This was a very enjoyable occasion with enriching exchanges; the monks of Ligugé delight Jane continually with their erudition, their kindness and their great good humour!

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Linked to the Easter ceremonies of 2016, Jane did present (from Easter to Pentacost) an exhibition on her work on the Ligugé Psalter. This exhibition took place at the Abbaye from March 27th to May 17th. Visitors were able to see the 33 first psalms that she realised since her arrival at the Abbaye on december 2014.

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