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Marriage feast at Cana, with an historiated initial 'S'(alvum) of Jonah being cast from his boat and praying in the sea, with two grotesques battling in the lower margin, from the Queen Mary Psalter by Marriage feast at Cana, with an historiated initial 'S'(alvum) of Jonah being cast from his boat and praying in the sea, with two grotesques battling in the lower margin, from the Queen Mary Psalter
Psalm 68; A bearded, crowned king, standing naked in water up to his chest in a shaft sunk into the earth, from The Luttrell Psalter by Psalm 68; A bearded, crowned king, standing naked in water up to his chest in a shaft sunk into the earth, from The Luttrell Psalter by Unknown English artist
Henry as David kneeling in prayer among ruins, from Henry VIII Psalter by Jean Mallard [attrib.]

The Queen Mary Master

Marriage feast at Cana, with an historiated initial 'S'(alvum) of Jonah being cast from his boat and praying in the sea, with two grotesques battling in the lower margin, from the Queen Mary Psalter, c.1310–20, Tinted drawing, 275 x 175 mm, The British Library, London, Royal MS 2 B VII, fol. 168v, © The British Library Board

Unknown English artist

Psalm 68; A bearded, crowned king, standing naked in water up to his chest in a shaft sunk into the earth, from The Luttrell Psalter, c.1320–40, Illumination on parchment, 355 x 245 mm, The British Library, London, Add MS 42130, fol. 121v, © The British Library Board Add MS 42130

Jean Mallard [attrib.]

Henry as David kneeling in prayer among ruins, from Henry VIII Psalter, c.1540, Illumination on parchment, 205 x 140 mm, The British Library, London, Royal MS 2 A XVI, fol. 79r, Photo: © The British Library Board

‘Save me, O God!’

Comparative Commentary by

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.