Image Assignment: A Journey (303/415)

Richard and Saladin Jousting. Luttrell Psalter ca. 1340. British Library.

I began my project with a clear idea of which image I wanted to discuss: the cover illustration of Amin Maalouf’s The Crusades Through Arab Eyes. The first thing I learned about this image was what I read on the back of the book, where notes about cover art are usually placed. The note informed me that the image was of Saladin and Richard jousting from a 14th century text called the Luttrell Psalter

General accounts of the Luttrell Psalter are ubiquitous. I glanced over the wikipedia article and discovered that this text was commissioned by Geoffrey Luttrell, an English knight, and is widely considered one of the most significant surviving psalters for its depictions of daily life in medieval England. I also got a clearer understanding of what a psalter actually is: a collection of religious material such as psalms, hymns, and liturgical calendars. As the Middle Ages progressed, psalters generally became more profusely illustrated. Given the cost of labor and material only the wealthy could afford them. 

I found out that the word psalter comes from psalm. I also briefly considered changing the spelling of my name to Psean. 

(Note: wikipedia is a good resource, but the general rule of thumb in serious research is that it is a place to begin rather than end. Always consult more sources.)

I did an image search on, a search engine that unlike Google does not track its users, where I found several digital versions of my image though none of them were large enough and they varied greatly in terms of color. I realized I needed a more definitive, “standard” version of the image rather than something from

So I accessed, one of my favorite databases at the SFSU library (yes I have favorite databases), where I located a large, vivid image that really brings out the color of Saladin’s face. The unavoidable question of why Saladin’s face is so blue occurred to me again.

Distractions intervened and I did not pursue my research for a couple of days, when I went to the library page and did an advanced search using the keywords “Luttrell” and “Saladin.” I limited the search to books available at SFSU rather than CSU-wide because of time constraints. During non-Covid times students can request hard copies of books from any of the CSU campuses. 

One of the hits was a 30 minute video specifically about the Luttrell Psalter, which I streamed on my laptop sitting by the window with a cup of coffee. It became apparent fairly quickly that the Saladin/Richard illustration I was researching for the assignment was hardly addressed at all. The video did, however, provide me with some crucial context, such as the significance of the psalter as a genre and the Luttrell Psalter’s comprehensive coverage of life on the Luttrell manor including farm work, animals, social events, etc. I was already aware that illuminated manuscripts often feature strange creatures and monsters in the margins. The Luttrell Psalter has many of these as well. 

Because I am interested in a specific image I went to the Grove Art Online database, which focuses on visual art. This publication is essentially an encyclopedia which is useful for learning about schools of art and particular paintings. Though the entry is much briefer than the wikipedia article, the following statement changed some of my thinking: 

In spite of the tendency, especially among historians, to interpret [the psalter’s images] as naturalistic scenes from 14th-century English life, the agricultural scenes in particular are infused with contemporary social and ideological meanings that address the personal concerns of Sir Geoffrey Luttrell as well as the declining system of feudalism in England.

The Luttrell Psalter, and thus the images contained in it, are ideological. 

And while it is true that all representations and symbols are produced with a purpose according to particular assumptions (i.e., they’re ideological) this claim reminded me that an informed response to the image assignment should absolutely go beyond mere description. My account of the Saladin/Richard illustration has to say something about its social significance, ideally both at the moment of its creation and in terms of how we, almost seven centuries later, relate to it. 

Still, I had not yet come to understand the color of Saladin’s face. Given the history of Western representations of the Other— for example racist caricatures by White American artists of Asians and Africans— it seemed likely that all Muslims were marked by blue skin. And why is Saladin’s nose so curved and huge? These formal elements of the Luttrell Psalter image might constitute visual topoi contributing to the discourse of the West and thus be be part of an early phase of “the Rest’s” racial formation. But did they signify the same thing then that they do now? 

I undertook a broader, yet more specific keyword search using new terms. I already knew that Europeans used the word “Saracen” to denominate people from the Orient. So I typed in “formal conventions visual medieval saracens”. 87 hits; far too many. I tried limiting the search to “reference entries” and chopped it down to five. One of the hits seemed promising but not exactly what I was looking for, an online book titled Gregory the Great and Image Theory in Northern Europe during the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries. True, it wasn’t about the 14th century, when the Luttrell Psalter was created. And who was Gregory the Great? A quick duckduckgo search led me to believe he was a 6th century pope. What’s going on?

At this point I decided to use one of the most effective resources provided by the university: an online chat with a reference librarian.

10:44:59 Pam: Hi Sean!  Did you have any questions?

10:45:13 Patron: HI Pam. It’s very specific.

10:45:37 Patron: I want to learn about an image of Saladin and Richard jousing in the Luttrell Psalter.

10:45:43 Patron: Jousting.

10:46:22 Patron: Specifically the visual conventions of depicting Muslims in illuminated manuscripts

10:47:03 Patron: ex. Why is Saladin depticted with a blue face?

10:47:31 Patron: I’ve been poking around but so far not too much.

10:48:55 Pam: I’m unfamiliar with the image, but did look it up just now and the topic you’re addressing sounds really interesting!  Can you let me know where you have looked already?

10:49:43 Patron: I tried the Grove Online art databse and keyworded in the advanced search at the SFSU library

10:50:31 Patron: I’m getting hits with ‘Saladin’ ‘Luttrell’ but not the kind of formal convention stuff I want

10:50:47 Pam: Hm, okay, let me see if I can find anything else for you, too.

10:51:46 Patron: Thx

10:54:17 Pam: I did find a book that may be helpful in a small way:

10:54:39 Pam: I think there’s a chapter in there on Islamophobia and they mention the image and Saladin’s skin color

10:55:55 Patron: cool. do you think something more general, just an account of visual conventions in illuminated manuscripts is gettable?

10:56:50 Pam: Let me see if I can find something related to that, too.  I’ll check!

10:57:35 Patron: this is my favorite part of studying

11:01:12 Pam: The research part is fun!  I did use the terms “visual conventions” “illuminated manuscripts” in the library catalog and found a book chapter, though I don’t know how helpful it will be either:

11:01:45 Pam: Just doing a general Google search, I found a thesis, but also not sure if it’ll be helpful either as it’s a thesis:

11:02:16 Patron: that looks really promising. yeah it’s like we’re detectives.

11:02:30 Patron: anyway that’s what i tell my students.

11:02:42 Patron: thank you so much. a lot to chew on here.

11:04:01 Pam: Oh, no problem!  I was about to also check a few databases that might be helpful with your search terms.  Something like JSTOR may have some answers about the visual conventions themselves, if not about the image of Saladin.

11:04:15 Patron: that would be great.

11:04:33 Patron: you all must be pretty slammed right now

11:05:54 Pam: It’s no problem!  We always have librarians on chat if you need anything at all.  If it’s not CSU librarians, there are other librarians from other campuses who help us out.

11:11:40 Pam: I found something maybe through Academic Search Premier:  Schmidt, V. M. (2011). Some Notes on Scrolls in the Middle Ages. Quaerendo, 41(3/4), 373–383.

11:12:09 Pam: I don’t have the SFSU link since I’m a librarian at Cal Poly Pomona (so yes, ignore the DOI) but I’m hoping you can get access through SFSU’s databases page.

11:14:29 Patron: Hey thanks a lot Pam. This has been very helpful. Now i get to start digging. Have a wonderful day.

11:15:10 Pam: Oh, you too!  Be safe and take care.  Good luck with the rest of the semester!  You’re welcome to use the chat service whenever you have any questions.

So first off, let’s note how great Pam is. Next, consider that I asked for her help AFTER I had already begun my research not only in order to make our exchange more productive and efficient but also because reference librarians are people who work hard. They not only have to know how to get the information; they basically function as customer service reps. If you’ve ever worked retail or waited tables then you know how demanding and unrewarding that kind of labor can be. 

With all of these new suggestions I was now in a position to assess a range of possible sources, choose the ones that met my research needs, and gather the information that I would be transforming into a clearly-written, interesting, informed, and imaginative response to the image assignment prompt. But first I went down the rabbit-hole. 

After another hour of keywording I discovered the existence of a book that seemed tailored to my interests, Debra Higgs Strickland’s Saracens, Demons, and Jews: Making Monsters in Medieval Art. It even had a chapter titled “Saracens, Tartars, and Other Crusader Fantasies.” Surely everything I hoped for— commentary on the image of Saladin in the Luttrell Psalter and a wider view of representations of Muslims in the Crusader era— would be here. 

Except SFSU’s library doesn’t have it. Other CSU libraries do, but the interlibrary loan service is not providing physical copies during the pandemic.

Other methods also proved fruitless. No pdfs of the book were floating around the internet. offered a chopped up preview. On Amazon the cheapest used copy of this out-of-print study costs $796. Sometimes the rabbit-hole ends in a cul-de-sac. 

I began a new chat with another reference librarian, Tom. This discussion was a little more abrupt, as by now I had been researching for a couple of hours while drinking several cups of coffee:

14:11:01 Patron: Hi Tom, this is Sean.

14:11:09 Tom: Hi Sean!

14:11:24 Patron: I’m really down the rabbit-hole.

14:11:39 Tom: ok.  well, let’s get out outta there!

14:12:02 Patron: I’m looking for a chapter from Debra Strickland’s Saracens, demons, and Jews

14:12:10 Patron: SFSU doesnt have it

14:12:14 Tom: hmmm

14:12:25 Tom: ok.  let me check this out.  hold on.

14:12:51 Patron: thx

14:15:35 Patron: just to explain: my goal is to learn more about an image of Saladin from an illuminated manuscript called the Luttrell Psalter.

14:16:30 Patron: I’ve been search for a couple of hours in order to find commentary on this image and also about the broader issue of representations of Muslims in European medieval art.

14:17:01 Tom (pretty much ignoring all of that): yea this one is complicated, as many libraries (including SFSU) have blocked access to the physical collections, due to COVID-19

14:17:15 Tom: we can’t request interlibrary loan books, either, because of the situation.

14:17:25 Patron: It costs 796 dollars on amazon

14:17:30 Tom: it looks like other CSU campuses have this 

14:17:42 Tom: I did notice the ‘cost’ on Amazon.  very expensive.

14:17:49 Tom: let me check some other sites.

14:18:14 Patron: thx

14:19:02 Tom: well, i checked SFPL and Internet archives and they don’t have access.

14:19:16 Tom: what I would do is use ILLiad.  Have you used this service before?

14:19:23 Patron (suddenly beginning to crash after hours of coffee and mild stress): yes i have

14:19:44 Tom: there may be a library who would be willing to scan a specific chapter or chapters.

14:19:58 Patron: that sound great

14:20:24 Tom: yes, it would be a ‘book’ request, but mention that all you want are a few chapters.

14:20:34 Tom: do you know the specific chapters you want?

14:20:39 Patron: i do

14:20:55 Tom: yea, there is a local notes field, so go ahead and enter this info.

14:21:23 Patron: inclusive pages?

14:21:34 Tom: sure.. that will work.

14:21:50 Patron: got it. i’ll give it a try. thanks.

14:21:56 Tom: ok

14:21:57 Tom: !

14:22:03 Tom: anything else i can help you with?

14:22:26 Patron: no. you’ve been very helpful. thanks again.

14:22:50 Tom: ok. great!  write back if you have other questions.

14:23:00 Tom: we anticipate having our book stacks open soon.

14:23:09 Patron: that’ll be wonderful.

14:23:11 Tom: once we do, then we’ll be able to order CSU+ books.

14:23:21 Tom: See yah!

14:23:29 Patron: bye!

Though this interaction was not as rewarding emotionally Tom was very efficient, in part because my request was very focused. 

It was time to gather all the materials I had so far managed to amass.

Minus Strickland’s yearned-for study of Medieval art, I used the following sources to inform my image presentation: 

1) the Luttrell Psalter entry from the Grove Art database

2) an entry from Muhammad in History, Thought, and Culture: an Encyclopedia of the Prophet of God titled “Medieval Islamophobia”

3) Yvonne Friedman’s essay “Christian Hatred of the Other: Theological Rhetoric vs. Political Reality” from a collection called Fear and Loathing in the North: Jews and Muslims in Medieval Scandinavia and the Baltic Region

Additional images consulted came from a digital version of the Luttrell Psalter at the British Library (where I should have checked first) and from the website of the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art. 

Richard and Saladin Jousting

The image I’ve chosen to discuss comes from the Luttrell Psalter, an illuminated manuscript now housed in the British Library. Created for Sir Geoffrey Luttrell ca. 1340 by unknown artists, the Luttrell Psalter is widely viewed as a vital source for understanding daily life in medieval England. Though this judgement is uncontroversial, it tends to overlook the fact that the images contained therein do not simply constitute a neutral record of the people and practices of Luttrell’s manor but instead perform ideological labor. For instance many of the illustrations depicting farm work and social events feature peasants dressed in a far better fashion than was common during the period. Such representations emphasize Luttrell’s wealth and generosity, essentially idealizing the manor’s conditions and the lives of the people who labored for him. They thereby support the notion that feudal relations were mutually beneficial for all of those participating in them, in effect defending the prevailing social order. 

The famous picture of a pair of mounted combatants jousting at the bottom of folio 82, underneath a Latin version of Psalm 41 provides an even more obvious example of the psalter’s use of images to fulfill an ideological function. The two figures, Richard Lionheart and Saladin, appear at the moment of impact. The fully-helmeted figure on the left, Richard, holds his lance straight and steady, striking into the body of the figure on the right, Saladin, whose own tilted lance and reclining posture indicate the force of the blow. His helmet seems to be falling and there is a grimace on his strikingly blue face. 

Richard’s apparent victory over Saladin in personal combat is at once purely imaginary and powerfully symbolic. Though these men never fought directly, the image pits one against the other, dramatizing the Crusader defeat of the Ayubbid army at Arsuf during the Third Crusade. The text of the psalm above the illustration, a prayer to God for protection against attack, supports this message of conquest: “I know that thou favorest me,” says the singer, “because my enemy does not triumph over me.” Taken together, image and text communicate the relatively straightforward moral that God defends the faithful. It is when we consider other visual aspects of this image that its significance grows more complex. Why is Saladin’s face so blue? Why is his nose so large and curved? Is this an effort to distinguish him in kind from Richard, to racialize Saladin and thus other people who share his faith? 

A dive into some relevant scholarship leads me to the conclusion that these visual markers have more to do with theological differences than race. Race as category of social identity and experience did not exist in the Middle Ages. It was not until the Enlightenment era that fully elaborated theories of race and racial distinction became widespread. In the medieval era, the color blue or black, while certainly associated with Africa, tended to indicate its possessors’ demonic or monstrous character. Muslims, viewed erroneously by many Christians as pagans, were often given visible traits that stood in for spiritual ones. In this sense “black” indicated a condition of the soul rather than someone’s complexion, an association that arugablyy persists to the present (and notably became apparent to a young Malcolm X when he read the dictionary in prison). Saladin’s monstrous features render him a representative of all of Christendom’s enemies, a status the symbol of the black head on his shield confirms.

Interestingly, this strategy of representation, Yvonne Friedman argues, was exclusive to the European North. In the Near East

whereas the Muslims were perceived as a military enemy, in everyday life both Jews and Muslims were viewed as human beings and not as diabolical demons. Thus the political-social reality made it possible to build a coexistence that alternated between war and peace, without transferring irrational European hatred to that arena.

Like Richard Lionheart, the historical personage Yusuf ibn Ayyub, known in the West as Saladin, long ago transformed from a mere individual into a powerful symbol with multiple valences. He gives his name to a (now defunct) British tank. A famous statue commemorates him in Damascus. He features as a character in Civlization VI. For many people East and West over almost a millennium he has embodied piety, chivalry, and resistance to oppression. Oddly, while his image in the Luttrell Psalter seems to contradict these celebratory views, his representation there as a faltering and distorted monster does little to diminish his symbolic power.