The Anointing of David, from the Paris Psalter by Unknown Byzantine artist

Unknown Byzantine artist

The Anointing of David, from the Paris Psalter, 10th century, Illumination on parchment, 370 x 265 mm, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris, Grec 139, fol. 3v, Bibliothèque nationale de France ark:/12148/btv1b10532634z

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Sacred Rule

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The Paris Psalter was probably commissioned by Byzantine Emperor Constantine VII Porphyogennetos (reigned 945–59 CE). Its fourteen illuminations in tempera and gold leaf stress the sacred character of kingly rule. Eight depict David: one as the ideal priest/king; the rest showing him composing the psalms, defending his flock, anointed by Samuel, slaying Goliath, acclaimed by the populace, crowned as king, and repentant after Nathan’s reproach.

The illuminations’ colouring and technique imitate the classical style of fifth- and sixth-century painting. Like ancient pagan art, they include personifications of virtues and of nature. As we see clearly in the illustration of the anointing of David, multiple perspectives are deployed, including the inverse perspective associated with many Byzantine icons.

The size of figures indicates importance. Thus David’s seven brothers are shown on a smaller scale than David, although they are on the same plane. Their father Jesse is the largest figure. Samuel is shown standing on the steps of a columned building and pouring oil on the inclined head of David. Jesse and Samuel are dressed in classical togas over tunics with stripes (claves). David is dressed in a short tunic with gold stripes, and a short purple cloak draped over one shoulder—indications of his royal status. A symbolic female figure labelled ‘gentleness’ or ‘humility’ (praotēs), hanging in the air behind Jesse, points to the bowing David. Both Samuel and the personification have haloes behind their heads—a sign not of sanctity, but of importance.

The illustrations as a whole are a kind of imperial encomium. David is presented as God’s elected ruler: a type not only of Christ, but also of the Byzantine emperor. St Paul wrote that all authority is from God (Romans 13:1), and 1 Peter (2:17) enjoins Christians to honour the king. Church historian Eusebius wrote that God created the Roman empire. Justinian’s Corpus Juris Civilis affirmed that ‘God has sent the emperor to earth as living law’ (Novellae Constitutiones 105.2.4). This is reaffirmed by the Basilika of 888.

In seeing themselves in the image of God’s anointed—David and his descendant, Jesus—the Byzantine emperors reinforced their claim to rule on God’s behalf.



Dipippo, Gregory. 2017. “The Paris Psalter, 4 February 2017”, [accessed 16 October 2019]

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