In England, there was a taste for large-scale illuminated Psalters throughout the Middle Ages. A remarkable example of this is the Queen Mary Psalter, one of the most extensively illustrated biblical manuscripts ever produced, containing around 1000 images. Prefacing, commenting on, and embellishing the Psalms, the illustrations are justly famous for their artistic sophistication in both coloured drawings and paintings.
The manuscript takes its name not from its original owner but from Queen Mary I (reigned 1553–58), to whom it was presented in 1553 by a zealous customs officer, Baldwin Smith, who had prevented its export from England. Although there is no heraldic or documentary evidence that the manuscript’s initial patron was also royal, the magnitude and quality of its illustrations makes an owner of such status very likely. Moreover, its artist—extraordinarily, all of the illustration seems to have been made by the same person—is now known as the ‘Queen Mary Master’ after this book.
Psalm 69 (Psalm 68 in the Vulgate) is illustrated with an image of Jonah in the initial, presumably on account of the Psalm’s vivid evocation of watery danger:
I have come into deep waters,
and the flood sweeps over me. (v.2)
Above it we see a scene from the life of Christ. The Psalter has a cycle of these scenes, beginning with the Annunciation at Psalm 1, and continuing throughout the manuscript. For Psalm 69 the scene is of Christ’s first miracle at the wedding at Cana, with the Virgin featured prominently at table next to Christ: an episode in which prayer is abundantly answered (as the ‘parched’ Psalmist (v.3) hopes his prayer will be too (v.13)).
An even more extensive cycle of figurative decoration is presented in the lower margins, or bas-de-pages, below the Psalter text. This decoration consists of tinted drawings, which are often, as on this page, seemingly unrelated to the text above. Here the image is of two bizarre hybrid creatures fighting, one armed with a club and shield. Collectively, the astonishing breadth and beauty of the drawings and paintings create a moving evocation of the world, both sacred and secular. They are a fitting accompaniment to Psalm 69’s hard-won moments of praise:
I will praise the name of God with a song;
I will magnify him with thanksgiving. …
Let the oppressed see it and be glad;
you who seek God, let your hearts revive. (vv.30, 32)
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.