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 Add MS 62925, fol. 8v by Unknown English Artist

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

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The Knowledge of Good and Evil

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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.

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