Miniature of King David playing harp, decorated initial 'D'(omine), from the Book of Hours, Use of Chartres by Unknown French Artist

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

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His Master’s Voice

Individual Commentary
Commentary by
David Lyle Jeffrey

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).