Psalm 23, from the Stuttgarter Psalter

Unknown French artist

Psalm 23, from the Stuttgarter Psalter, First half of the 9th century, Illuminated manuscript, Württembergische Landesbibliothek, Stuttgart, Cod. bibl. fol. 23, f. 28v

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The Death-Defying Shepherd

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This ninth-century Carolingian illumination of Psalm 23 is found in the Stuttgart Psalter. The manuscript uses 316 illuminations to accompany the Psalter. In contrast to the almost contemporary Utrecht Psalter, which is characterized by a concern to illustrate every detail of the ‘word-pictures’ in the Psalms, the Stuttgart Psalter takes a more pared down approach.

Accordingly, in this illumination made to accompany Psalm 23, one theme is prioritized, that of the protective ‘Shepherd / Lord’ of Psalm 23:1–4. In the centre, in the heavy, brightly-coloured style that is characteristic of the Stuttgart, stands the Shepherd, nimbed with a halo and holding a staff or ferula (Psalm 23:4). The Psalmist himself, the speaker of the Psalm, is noticeably absent. The ‘still waters’ of Psalm 23:2 are represented by the stream on whose banks the ‘Shepherd’ stands, and the green pastures (also of Psalm 23:2) by the two trees to his right and left (painted in markedly different styles). The ‘evil’ referenced in verse 4 is here suggested by the snake wrapped around the base of the tree to the ‘Shepherd’s’ right, which he is calmly subduing with his extended right hand. The combination of the tree (which recalls the tree of knowledge of Genesis 2:17), the serpent (which is viewed within Christian theology as the bringer of death to humankind, see Genesis 3), and the haloed Shepherd, a figure who, in the New Testament, is often linked with Christ, implies that in this illumination, Psalm 23 is being interpreted ‘typologically’ (when the Old Testament is read through the prism of the New).

Bearing the cross as the Shepherd in the Psalm bears his staff, Christ opens the way to salvation, and leads his people along it.

 

References

Hill, Robert C (Trans.). 2000. Theodoret of Cyrus: Commentary on the Psalms, 1-72, The Fathers of the Church (Washington, DC: CUA Press)


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