Psalm 1

The Blessed and the Wicked

Commentaries by David Lyle Jeffrey

Works of art by Unknown English artist, Unknown French artist and Unknown Italian artist [Veneto]

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Unknown English artist

Full-page historiated initial 'B'(eatus) at the beginning of Psalm 1, of King David harping, and the Judgement of Solomon, from The Rutland Psalter, c.1260, Illumination on parchment, 285 x 205 mm, The British Library, London; Add MS 62925, fol. 8v, © The British Library Board

The Knowledge of Good and Evil

Commentary by David Lyle Jeffrey

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The illuminated initial letter ‘B’, for ‘Beatus’, which opens Psalm 1 in the Rutland Psalter (c.1260), is a complex artwork with two primary and seven secondary medallion scenes.

Of the latter, the medallion at the upper right depicts the creation of Eve, and the bottom right shows her, having been beguiled by the serpent, offering the forbidden fruit to Adam. The bottom left medallion shows Christ with the scales of judgement, while the upper left represents a shepherd who appears to be sorting sheep. The three smaller medallions running down the left-hand side of the page develop a Christian Creation-to-Judgement theme. In the uppermost one, Christ stands holding fruit in each hand, suggesting that Adam and Eve may eat from any tree in the Garden, except the one he identifies in the medallion below as the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (Genesis 2:9, 17).

The recollection of Genesis 1–3’s binary opposites (permission and prohibition, good and evil, divine blessing and divine judgement) seems intended to echo the binary structure of Psalm 1. The connection is visually reinforced by the bottom of these three small medallions, in which we again see the figure of Christ holding the scales of judgement.

The two larger scenes occupying the upper and lower orbs of the letter ‘B’, amplify and apply the theme of separation of right from wrong. In the lower of the two, we see Solomon making his famous judgement (1 Kings 3:16–28), discerning by wisdom which of the two supplicant women is the true mother of the child. Above him, we see his father David the Psalmist with harp in hand. This is a very familiar motif in illuminated Beatus pages, but here, most unusually, David is looking out at the viewer, eye-to-eye, so to speak, with his lips pursed as if singing. With the fingers of his right hand plucking the strings of his harp (depicted with great accuracy), he seems to be inviting us to enter into this first song in the Psalter in its description of the opposition of the ‘blessed’ to the ‘wicked’. In the context of the larger page, it becomes part of a whole history of human fall and redemption.

Unknown Italian artist [Veneto]

King David, from The Rothschild Miscellany, c.1479, Illumination on vellum, 21 x 15.9 cm, The Israel Museum, Jerusalem; MS 180.51 fol.1b, B61.09.0803o.s., Zev Radovan / Art Resource, NY

An Orphic David

Commentary by David Lyle Jeffrey

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This is one of the most beautiful of extant medieval Jewish illuminated manuscripts. Although works like this were infrequent in Jewish orthodoxy because of the strictures of the second commandment (Exodus 20:4; Deuteronomy 5:8), the motif of David as a kind of Orpheus, the revered musician of Greek and Roman mythology, offered a tempting opportunity to draw an analogy.

In a fourth-century fresco painting in the catacombs of Peter and Marcellus in Rome, one also finds such Orpheus images in reference to Christ. Similar but earlier images are in some instances Mithraic. In Christianity as well as in Judaism, syncretism is establishing a way of connecting a powerful pagan myth to a biblical motif, in the Christian version of which Christ, of the lineage of David, similarly evokes a restoration of Edenic fruitfulness and peace.

Overt parallels between Orpheus and the Psalmist go back to at least the third century CE. Hellenistic culture had a powerful influence on the Jewish imagination in which the singing of Orpheus was perceived as a natural anticipation of David’s sacred music. The linking of Orpheus with David in visual tradition is seen as early as the synagogue paintings at Dura-Europos (completed before 244 CE). What is more, the synagogue mosaics in Gaza dated to 508 CE closely resemble this illumination from the Rothschild Miscellany even though they are almost a millennium apart.

Here, under the framed first word of the text, Ashrei (‘blessed’), we see King David seated with his harp in the midst of a terrestrial paradise. The garden is watered by a pleasant stream, and it contains all manner of trees laden with ripe fruit; indeed fruit is scattered all over the ground. The Psalmist likewise is fruitful, and his music is a source of harmony and tranquillity for all the creatures of the garden, restoring Edenic health; animals both clean (the deer) and unclean (the rabbit/hare) draw close to listen (Leviticus 11:3, 6).

As by his playing of the harp Orpheus brings nature and the animals into tranquil harmony, so by his lyrics the Psalmist provides for a restoration in the human heart of original garden home and fruitful purpose.

Unknown French artist

Miniature of King David playing harp, decorated initial 'D'(omine), from the Book of Hours, Use of Chartres, c.1480–1500, Tempera on vellum, 160 x 100 mm, The British Library, London; MS Harley 2935, fol. 88, © The British Library Board

His Master’s Voice

Commentary by David Lyle Jeffrey

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In the later Middle Ages, illuminations of the Psalms often appeared in Books of Hours, collections of Christian texts and prayers in which the Psalms frequently featured. The British Library’s MS Harley 2935 (fol. 88), offers a splendid, late-fifteenth-century French example.

It is clearly made for a wealthy household or royal court and diverges in interesting ways from images made for monasteries and churches. Here, in an illumination made to introduce a group of Psalms known as the Penitential Psalms, King David kneels at a prie-dieu (a prayer desk) with the biblical text open before him, harp in hand. The text may be ‘the law of the Lord’ (Psalm 1:2) on which he has been meditating, his harp assisting. Behind him is a sideboard with a ewer for water and four plates, indicating that he has arisen early, washed, dressed, then betaken himself to prayer. At his window there suddenly appears the Lord, Christ, whose Law (in this Christian reading) he has been contemplating, resplendent in glory and holding a traditional sign of his eternal sovereignty, a globe surmounted by a cross.

We see that while David may be a great king, he is only a servant of the melech ha ‘olam, the King of the Universe. An unusual element in this image is the pure white dog, gazing at David as he prays. This may be a sign of David’s fidelitas (hence ‘Fido’), but also perhaps of the faithfulness of God towards the man who ‘walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers’ (Psalm 1:1).

Although not explicitly associated with Psalm 1, this illumination encourages us to think about it (and perhaps all the Psalms) as court counsel, as well as a personal call to faithful meditation upon the law of the Lord ‘day and night’ (v.2).

Unknown English artist :

Full-page historiated initial 'B'(eatus) at the beginning of Psalm 1, of King David harping, and the Judgement of Solomon, from The Rutland Psalter, c.1260 , Illumination on parchment

Unknown Italian artist [Veneto] :

King David, from The Rothschild Miscellany, c.1479 , Illumination on vellum

Unknown French artist :

Miniature of King David playing harp, decorated initial 'D'(omine), from the Book of Hours, Use of Chartres, c.1480–1500 , Tempera on vellum

Fruit in its Season

Comparative commentary by David Lyle Jeffrey

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The binary opposition in Psalm 1 of the ‘blessed’ and the ‘wicked’ person presents challenges to visual interpretation simply because there are inherently two subjects.

Early Christian and Jewish artists sometimes settled for a straightforward depiction of King David and his harp, yet through the early Middle Ages they also made visual allusions to his best-known exploits while illuminating his Psalms. Some eleventh- and twelfth-century Beatus pages have David’s harp music placating the spiritus malus of Saul; others show his defeat of an archetypal ‘wicked’ man, Goliath. Occasionally they drew attention to the way the book of Psalms as a whole was a meditation on Torah. This was sometimes represented in Benedictine manuscripts by the twin tablets of the Decalogue doubling as a harp or, as in the Beatus page of the St Alban’s Psalter, by showing David with his harp in one hand and a symbolic book in the other.

Christological readings of Psalm 1 came to be normative from Augustine’s On the Psalms (1:1–6) through to the eleventh-century Glossa Ordinaria (PL 113, col. 844). It was one of many Psalms that were regarded as messianic by Christian theologians—which is why the Bodleian’s MS Douce 313 (fol. 170v) shows David having a vision of the crucifixion while he harps. The incorporation of an image of Christ crucified on a Beatus page, when it occurs, does more than make a connection between Psalm 1 and Psalm 22; it draws attention to christological themes perceived by Christian exegetes in the entirety of the Psalter.

Still other Beatus page images show David tuning his harp strings to bells. When only four bells are shown, the artist may be making a further reference to what Christian tradition saw as the propaedeutic (or preparatory) work of the Old Testament in relation to the New. In this case a harmony between the Psalms and the four Gospels is highlighted—supported by the frequency with which the four Evangelists record Jesus quoting the Psalms.

While most of the Jewish images come later than the fourteenth century, they can reflect, as does our Rothschild Miscellany example, an earlier marriage of ancient Hellenistic with Jewish iconography that would be largely recognizable to medieval and early modern Christian viewers too. Among such elements are the attentive hart, associated with David from Psalm 42, and perhaps even the rabbit, in both religious traditions associated with fecundity. While by this period the harp of David was often represented in Christian images as having ten strings, harmoniously tied to the Law on which the Psalms meditate (and the Decalogue specifically), in Jewish tradition two other options were possible. The first of these accords it seven strings, representing the fullness of Creation. Rabbinical commentary holds out the possibility of eight strings in contexts in which David is viewed as himself to be the Messiah (Tosefta Arakhin 2.7; Babylonian Talmud Arakhin 13b; Pirqe R. Eliezer 19), since eight is associated in both traditions with renewed Creation, ‘a new heaven and a new earth’.

Another rabbinic text claims that David made the strings for his harp from the entrails of the sacrificial ram miraculously provided instead of Isaac on Mount Moriah (Genesis 22Pirqe R. Eliezer 31); connecting that event, the Akedah, with the restoration of Paradise, much as the Akedah in Christian typology becomes a precursor of the Crucifixion.

There may be further hints of mutual exegetical awareness here between medieval Jewish and medieval Christian tradition; a Midrash on Psalm 1:1 (Midrash Tehellim 1.1) has the verse spoken first by Adam, who wishes he had not taken the counsel of the serpent, and scorned the commandment of the Creator. In Christian exegesis, as exampled in the Rutland Psalter, the memory of the fall of the ‘first Adam’ is visually as well as rhetorically a foil to the choice of the ‘blessed’ man, Christ.

The catalogue of visual interpretation of Psalm 1 is richly variegated—we see only a small portion of it here. The examples in this exhibition capture, however, something of the central themes and imaginative range produced by Jewish as well as Christian artist–illuminators of the Psalms. Psalm 1 in particular is interpreted as an inter-textual theological harmony, drawing into itself many other texts.

The fecundity of these interpretations is well-symbolized by the tree branch that David holds with his left hand in the Rutland Psalter. It seems to grow out of his loins and through his harp, suggesting that—for us, perhaps, as for him—singing the praises of the Lord is a natural outgrowth of the harmonious fruitfulness of a faithful life.


References [accessed 18 October 2018]

Next exhibition: Psalms 15

Psalm 1

Revised Standard Version

1Blessed is the man

who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,

nor stands in the way of sinners,

nor sits in the seat of scoffers;

2but his delight is in the law of the Lord,

and on his law he meditates day and night.

3He is like a tree

planted by streams of water,

that yields its fruit in its season,

and its leaf does not wither.

In all that he does, he prospers.

4The wicked are not so,

but are like chaff which the wind drives away.

5Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,

nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;

6for the Lord knows the way of the righteous,

but the way of the wicked will perish.