The book of Psalms was at the heart of medieval spirituality. Perhaps not surprisingly, therefore, manuscripts containing the Psalms are amongst the most common surviving medieval books. These manuscripts are characterized as Psalters when they also include other texts adding to the book’s devotional character, such as a Calendar, which provided its user with information about saints’ days and other holidays. Typically the Canticles follow the Psalms, together with more localized or personalized prayers and litanies, thereby creating an individualized Christian devotional compilation from a collection of songs originally written in Hebrew and used in the Jewish liturgy.
Like the majority of biblical books in Western Christendom, the texts of these Psalters were written in Latin, in one of the translations traditionally ascribed to St Jerome (d.420 CE), one of the four Fathers of the Western Church. Over a period of nearly twenty-five years Jerome worked on translations of biblical texts from Greek and Hebrew into the Latin vernacular; and is thought to have completed three versions or revisions of the Psalms. Many of these books designed for prayer and devotions, both private and communal, are decorated extensively.
In luxury copies, this decoration often includes ‘historiated’ initials, literally initials with narrative content telling stories. The more ornate letter forms typically occur at the eightfold divisions of the Psalter. These characteristic divisions are derived from the groups of Psalms recited each day (and at Sunday vespers) in monastic practice, and are placed at the beginnings of Psalms 1, 26, 38, 52, 68, 80, 97, and 109 (in Vulgate numbering). Ultimately the groups reflect the requirements of chapter 16 of the Rule formulated by St Benedict (d.547 CE) citing the Psalmist’s reflection that ‘Seven times a day I have given praise to thee’ (Psalm 118:164) and ‘I rose at midnight to give praise to thee’ (Psalm 118:62).
The subjects of these historiated initials became standardized over time, and were generally related either to the life of David, the content of the text itself, or to the Psalm’s heading or title. David’s life is an appropriate subject for illustration because he was believed to be the author of the Psalms. This is the case for the Psalter of Henry VIII, the King’s personal prayer book, in which Henry has himself pictured in the guise of David at several of the important divisions of the book. At the beginning of Psalm 69 (Psalm 68 in the Vulgate) David (Henry) is shown in penitence, in a traditional position of prayer, kneeling, with his hands raised. (Another English example of David in a historiated initial, from the Rutland Psalter, can be seen in the VCS exhibition on Psalm 1, where David is shown as a musician with his harp in the act of composing these Psalms, or sacred songs.)
Another approach is a more literal interpretation of the Psalm text itself. Psalm 69 begins ‘Save me, O God: for the waters are come in even unto my soul’ (v.1 Douay–Rheims). The Psalmist continues with the plea:
Draw me out of the mire, that I may not stick fast: deliver me from them that hate me, and out of the deep waters.
Let not the tempest of water drown me, nor the deep swallow me up. (vv.15–16 Douay–Rheims)
Thus in the Luttrell Psalter, a rather frightened looking naked king is standing in chest-high water, also in a position of supplication.
Another way of illustrating the Psalms was to focus on their allegorical or typological content, drawing on commentaries of the Church Fathers. In the Queen Mary Psalter, for example, the image in the initial is not David but Jonah, who was seen as a ‘type’ or prefiguration of Christ, spending three days in the belly of the whale before being thrown up onto dry land. Moreover, the text of the Psalm is similar in wording to Jonah’s prayer ‘The waters compassed me about even to the soul’ (Jonah 2:6).
For Christian readers, this connection to Jonah would have been part of a more comprehensive set of Christological resonances, for the lines of this Psalm echo powerfully in the New Testament—more, perhaps, than any other except Psalm 22—and mainly in connection with the suffering and death that Jesus, the anointed one (or Messiah), had to undergo. For St Augustine of Hippo there was no doubt: ‘This Psalm sings of the passion of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (In Answer to the Jews 5.6).
The beautiful and captivating images in this exhibition enhance and explicate the text, in each case providing a sophisticated exegesis of this poetic biblical book.
69Save me, O God!
For the waters have come up to my neck.
2I sink in deep mire,
where there is no foothold;
I have come into deep waters,
and the flood sweeps over me.
3I am weary with my crying;
my throat is parched.
My eyes grow dim
with waiting for my God.
4More in number than the hairs of my head
are those who hate me without cause;
mighty are those who would destroy me,
those who attack me with lies.
What I did not steal
must I now restore?
5O God, thou knowest my folly;
the wrongs I have done are not hidden from thee.
6Let not those who hope in thee be put to shame through me,
O Lord God of hosts;
let not those who seek thee be brought to dishonor through me,
O God of Israel.
7For it is for thy sake that I have borne reproach,
that shame has covered my face.
8I have become a stranger to my brethren,
an alien to my mother’s sons.
9For zeal for thy house has consumed me,
and the insults of those who insult thee have fallen on me.
10When I humbled my soul with fasting,
it became my reproach.
11When I made sackcloth my clothing,
I became a byword to them.
12I am the talk of those who sit in the gate,
and the drunkards make songs about me.
13But as for me, my prayer is to thee, O Lord.
At an acceptable time, O God,
in the abundance of thy steadfast love answer me.
With thy faithful help 14rescue me
from sinking in the mire;
let me be delivered from my enemies
and from the deep waters.
15Let not the flood sweep over me,
or the deep swallow me up,
or the pit close its mouth over me.
16Answer me, O Lord, for thy steadfast love is good;
according to thy abundant mercy, turn to me.
17Hide not thy face from thy servant;
for I am in distress, make haste to answer me.
18Draw near to me, redeem me,
set me free because of my enemies!
19Thou knowest my reproach,
and my shame and my dishonor;
my foes are all known to thee.
20Insults have broken my heart,
so that I am in despair.
I looked for pity, but there was none;
and for comforters, but I found none.
21They gave me poison for food,
and for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.
22Let their own table before them become a snare;
let their sacrificial feasts be a trap.
23Let their eyes be darkened, so that they cannot see;
and make their loins tremble continually.
24Pour out thy indignation upon them,
and let thy burning anger overtake them.
25May their camp be a desolation,
let no one dwell in their tents.
26For they persecute him whom thou hast smitten,
and him whom thou hast wounded, they afflict still more.
27Add to them punishment upon punishment;
may they have no acquittal from thee.
28Let them be blotted out of the book of the living;
let them not be enrolled among the righteous.
29But I am afflicted and in pain;
let thy salvation, O God, set me on high!
30I will praise the name of God with a song;
I will magnify him with thanksgiving.
31This will please the Lord more than an ox
or a bull with horns and hoofs.
32Let the oppressed see it and be glad;
you who seek God, let your hearts revive.
33For the Lord hears the needy,
and does not despise his own that are in bonds.
34Let heaven and earth praise him,
the seas and everything that moves therein.
35For God will save Zion
and rebuild the cities of Judah;
and his servants shall dwell there and possess it;
36the children of his servants shall inherit it,
and those who love his name shall dwell in it.