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Psalterlocked

  • Lucy Freeman Sandler

Book containing the 150 psalms of the Old Testament. This article is concerned with manuscript Psalters used in the Western Church; for those used in the Orthodox Church see Early Christian and Byzantine art, §V, 2. The Psalter is usually divided into sections to be recited daily at Matins and Sunday Vespers and hence is a liturgical book used by the clergy in the Divine Office (forming the basis for the Breviary), or by the laity for private devotions. In addition to the psalms, Psalters generally contain an ecclesiastical Calendar, canticles, creeds, and the litany of the saints; the calendar and litany frequently provide evidence of the intended destination of a Psalter. Traditionally attributed to King David and his court musicians, the psalms are hymns in praise of God and pleas for his help and mercy. With the advent of Christianity, the psalms were interpreted in specifically Christian terms: the Lord of the Old Testament was understood as Christ the Messiah, and many passages of individual psalms were seen as Christian metaphors and prefigurations. The Hebrew text of the psalms reached the Latin West via the translations made by St Jerome in the 4th century AD, two from the Greek version (the Septuagint) and one directly from the original language. The three versions, known respectively as the Roman, Gallican, and Hebrew Psalters, differ in the numbering of the psalms (the Gallican will be followed here), and there are also many important textual differences. In the West, the Gallican translation became the standard text. Some Psalters, even illustrated examples such as the Utrecht Psalter (see below), contain parallel texts of two or even all three versions of the psalms.

The Psalter was one of the most frequently illustrated medieval texts in the West, especially between the 12th and 14th centuries, although the first surviving examples date from as early as 725. Those who commissioned Psalters could affirm their faith by having the text enhanced with precious ornament and images. Unlike the narrative portions of the Bible, however, the psalms did not readily lend themselves to direct, literal illustration. Consequently, their illustration was varied, both in format and in iconography. Most Psalters were illustrated with decorated or historiated initials at the main divisions of the text, either the threefold partition (Psalms 1, 51), or the daily psalm readings (Psalms 1, 26, 38, 52, 68, 80, 97, and 109), or a combination of the two, or even at the beginning of each psalm. In this method of illustration, picture and text are related. One of the characteristic features of illustrated Psalters, however, is the inclusion of extensive pictorial programmes outside the text proper, for example cycles of prefatory miniatures before the opening words of Psalm 1, or interspersed within the text.

The earliest illustrations in Psalters were historical and literal in approach. From the 8th century, following a pattern that can be traced back to the illustration of non-Christian texts in the Late Antique period, the Psalter was provided with an author-portrait frontispiece representing David, for example that of David and his Musicians in the 8th-century Vespasian Psalter (London, BL, Cotton MS. Vesp. A. I, now fol. 30r). The oral, chanted origins of the psalms are recalled in David’s harp, which replaces the rolls or codices shown in other early author portraits. Additional full-page miniatures of the Life of David might be grouped together at the beginning of the Psalter (e.g. the Tiberius Psalter, see below), or placed singly before the main divisions of the text. Echoes of the author-portrait frontispiece are found in numerous Psalters, in which the illustration for Psalm 1 takes the form of a historiated initial showing David playing the harp, for example in the St Albans Psalter (c. 1120–30; Hildesheim, St Godehardkirche).

Utecht Psalter, illustration of Psalm 44 (detail), ink on vellum, full page 330×250 mm, c. 1180–1200, after the original c. ad 830 (Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, MS. lat. 8846); photo credit: Giraudon/Art Resource, NY

A literal method of illustrating the Psalter is represented by the Carolingian Utrecht Psalter (816–34; Utrecht, Bib. Rijksuniv., MS. 32, fol. 144), the unframed pen drawings of which, placed above the beginning of each psalm, are collective images, with each visual element corresponding to one or two verses. For example, at Psalm 43 a group of angels rousing the Lord from his bed represents the words ‘Arise O Lord, why sleepest thou’. There survive only three direct descendants of the Utrecht Psalter: the Harley Psalter (c. 1000; London, BL, Harley MS. 603), the Eadwine Psalter (c. 1150–60; Cambridge, Trinity Coll., MS. R.17.1), and the last copy (c. 1180–90; Paris, Bib. N., MS. lat. 8846; see fig.). On the other hand, literal illustration of only the opening words of the psalms was widespread, found, for instance, in countless representations of chanting clerics for the historiated initial of Psalm 97, ‘Sing ye to the Lord a new canticle’. A few Gothic Psalters have literal illustrations for the historiation of all 150 psalms, for example the Psalter of Humphrey de Bohun (begun c. 1360; Vienna, Österreich. Nbib., Cod. 1826*; for an alternative dating see Bohun).

The Christian interpretation of the psalms resulted in the inclusion of full-page images of Christ in Psalters by the end of the 8th century. A Psalter written at Mondsee, Austria, before 778 (Montpellier, Bib. Interuniv., MS. 409, fols 1v and 2v) pairs a standing figure of David as prophet with a standing figure of Christ as king, making clear the typological symbolism of the Old Testament prophet as a precursor of Christ. A number of Psalters made in Anglo-Saxon England (see Anglo-Saxon art, §IV, 2) have miniatures of the Crucifixion, Christ Trampling the Lion and the Dragon, or Christ Enthroned, some again in conjunction with images of David, for example the Crucifixion in the Ramsey Psalter (c. 1000; London, BL, Harley MS. 2904, fol. 3v). From the 12th century the historical link between David and Christ was demonstrated diagrammatically by the Tree of Jesse, showing the descent of Christ from the father of David, often filling the enlarged Beatus initial of the first psalm, for example in the Imola Psalter (c. 1200; Imola, Bib. Com., MS. 100, fols 10v and 11r).

Manuscript leaf from a psalter, Agony in the Garden and Betrayal of Christ, tempera on gold on parchment, 235×165 mm, c. 1270 (New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund, 1922, Accession ID: 22.24.4); image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Christological imagery became standard for Psalter illustration during the 11th century. Single devotional images of Christ immediately before the opening of the psalms gave way to serial narrative miniatures, representing events from his life. The earliest known series is in the Anglo-Saxon Tiberius psalter (c. 1050; London, BL, Cotton MS. Tib. C. VI), which contains five full-page coloured line drawings of the Life of David followed by eleven from the Life of Christ. In the 12th and 13th centuries such series proliferated, becoming the hallmark of luxury Psalters. Cycles of the Life of Christ were often preceded by scenes from the Old Testament, so that the prefatory miniatures of a Psalter almost constituted an entire picture Bible. Among the most famous is the Ingeborg Psalter (c. 1195; Chantilly, Mus. Condé, MS. 1695), which belonged to the wife of Philip II Augustus (reg 1180–1223) and contains eight Old Testament subjects, a Tree of Jesse and 38 New Testament subjects, and is further enriched with illustrations of the Life of Theophilus and the Life of the Virgin. A late example of a similarly comprehensive programme is found in the Queen Mary Psalter (c. 1310–35; London, BL, Royal MS. 2. B. VII), which contains Old and New Testament scenes before and within the psalm text. The illustrations of the individual psalms also often reflect the Christian interpretation of the text. Particularly striking is the common occurrence of the Trinity as an illustration of Psalm 109, ‘The Lord said to my Lord: Sit thou at my right hand’. In some cases all, or nearly all, the psalms at the text subdivisions are illustrated with subjects drawn from Christian exegesis: a group of 13th-century Psalters from Liège is known for such subjects as the Last Judgement for Psalm 1, Christ healing the blind man for Psalm 26, and the Temptation of Christ for Psalm 52.

In most cases, however, the psalms were illustrated in diverse ways, in which Davidian authorship, literal meaning, historical context, and Christian message are combined. Simple literal illustrations, such as those showing figures pointing to the eye for Psalm 26 (‘The Lord is my light’), identify the figure as David; the drowning figure of Psalm 68 (‘Save me O Lord for I am drowning’) is also often David, or alternatively a scene of Jonah and the Whale, a biblical example appropriate to the text. The Fool of Psalm 52 (‘The fool said in his heart there is no God’) may be juxtaposed with King David, but occasionally the psalm is illustrated with the Suicide of Saul, the ultimate example of the rejection of God.

By the second half of the 13th century the subjects illustrating the psalms at the liturgical divisions of the Psalter were standardized, and emphasis shifted from historiated initials tied to the text to images and decoration in the margins of the page, independent of the words of the psalms (see Border, manuscript). From the early 13th century the finials of the larger psalm initials had begun to uncoil down the length of the page or across the width of the margins, forming straight bars or sinuous foliage-tipped tendrils that provided supports for animals or fantastic creatures: drolleries. In particular, the bottom margin, or Bas-de-page, became the setting for subsidiary figures or scenes, often a mixture of the secular, the fantastic, and the sacred, whose relation to the text is usually unclear. The chief examples of marginal illustration, such as the Ormesby Psalter (1310–20; Oxford, Bodleian Lib., MS. Douce 366) and the Luttrell Psalter (c. 1330–40; London, BL, Add. MS. 42130), were produced during the early 14th century in East Anglia. Towards the end of the 14th century, however, this type of Psalter illustration was replaced by uniform and neutral foliate borders, both around text and miniatures. Indeed, during the 14th century both the apogee and the decline of Psalter illustration occurred; with the increasing devotion to the Virgin, and the intensified focus on the human suffering of Christ, Book of Hours replaced the Psalter as the most common type of richly illustrated text for devotional use.

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