This month the Universiteitsbibliotheek Utrecht announced the complete digitization of the Utrecht Psalter (MS Bibl. Rhenotraiectinae I Nr 32.), a ninth-century manuscript famous for the sketch-like realism of its illustrations. It’s a glorious production, even for those of us jaded by a decade or more of similar projects that have brought some of the medieval era’s most treasured books to our laptop screens and our classrooms in ways we couldn’t have imagined when I was in graduate school.
Imagine my surprise, then, to learn from a recent dissertation that one of the modern masters of surrealist illustration, Theodor Geisel (aka Dr. Seuss, 1904-1991), took an avid interest in the psalter’s decorative program. He was particularly enchanted by the rough-inked landscapes he found in the psalter, exemplified in the medieval illuminator’s idiosyncratic approach to the depiction of flora. Nowhere are these lines of visual influence realized more clearly (and uncannily) than in Geisel’s appropriation of the Utrecht Psalter’s enchanting trees, which seem to float over the page even while tethered to the parchment by a series of twisted, gnarled trunks often jutting from perilous escarpments. These trees were apparently the direct inspiration for the ‘Truffalump tree,’ the threatened species inspiring the environmental imagination of The Lorax, as well as other imaginative renderings of the semi-forested pastoral scenes abounding in Geisel’s oeuvre. On one folio of the Utrecht Psalter, stacked circles represent the trees’ foliage, sketched just above the seventh verse of Psalm 3 (non timebo milia populi quae circumdederunt me surge Domine salvum me fac Deus meus); on another, two delicately rendered saplings reach impossibly from a rock inked below the tenth verse of Psalm 15 (Delectationes in dextera tua usque in finem)–and both folios are reborn in the pages of The Lorax and Green Eggs and Ham. Dr. Seuss? Medievalism, all the way down.