In many parts of the Christian tradition Psalm 23 has become closely associated with funeral services—it was formally included in the Church of England’s burial liturgy in 1928, for example. But the history of this well-loved Psalm within both Jewish and Christian traditions is more complex and varied than this association alone.
The wealth of different visual approaches that have been taken to its interpretation are in part a consequence of the non-narrative quality of biblical psalms. The Psalms tend to reflect and provoke human emotion rather than to record events or set out narratives. The artworks made in response to them, rather than being literal representations of the text, tend to be ‘word pictures’ generated by specific words or phrases. Thus the varied visual history of Psalm 23 is, to an extent, the result of artists responding to or prioritizing different sections of the Psalm.
Most artworks inspired by Psalm 23 (or commissioned to illuminate it) prioritize either the pastoral side of the Psalm (as in the case of the Parma illumination) or the ‘valley of the shadow of death’ of Psalm 23:4 and its attendant imagery (as in the Stuttgart illumination). The latter strand became progressively more dominant, thanks in part to the multiple illustrated versions of John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (the most translated book after the Bible), which includes a section in which Christian, the ‘everyman pilgrim’, has to traverse the ‘valley of the shadow of death’ (Collé-Bak 2010: 224). By the time Roger Fenton exhibited his photograph of the Crimean ‘valley of death’ in 1855, Psalm 23:4 was so well embedded in the British cultural landscape that the title The Valley of the Shadow of Death could be appended to the image by the authors of the exhibition catalogue without further explanation (Groth 2002: 553).
How can the combination of these three contrasting artworks enrich our understanding of the Psalm? It is important to reiterate that for most of its Jewish and some of its Christian history Psalm 23 was understood as a pastoral Psalm (akin to Psalms 16 and 22), which emphasized God’s providential care for the world in this life and the resultant need for confidence and trust in him. The Parma illumination, which reflects Psalm 23’s imagery of ‘green pastures’, ‘still waters’, and restoration (vv.2–3) orients the viewer towards just such a pastoral interpretation (and the Utrecht Psalter, which is contemporary with the Stuttgart Psalter, is also celebratory of the abundance of divine blessing). The ‘deep shadow’ of 23:4 does not carry the connotations of the valley of death that the Latinate Christian tradition later attached to it. In the Parma illumination there is an absence of eschatological references and the mention of ‘evil’ has been passed over in favour of a more positive, present-orientated depiction of this unusual Psalmist delighting in the natural world.
The Stuttgart illumination, by contrast, while using the Psalm’s pastoral imagery as a backdrop, clearly prioritizes the imagery found in 23:4 of the Lord (here conceived of as Jesus) offering protection from evil and death in both a present and future capacity. This is one of the first images to emphasize the Psalm’s darker side through the prism of a typological reading. In promoting Psalm 23:4 in this way, over and above other aspects of the text, the Stuttgart illumination anticipates a long strand of engagement with this section of the Psalm. While in verse 4 itself the Psalmist seems quite clear that despite his brush with ‘death’, evil need not be feared, in some later strands of the visual, musical, and filmic reception in particular, the motif of the ‘valley of death’ becomes connected with hopelessness and religious despair (Roncace n.d.).
Roger Fenton’s sepia-toned image, as well as being one of the first photographic representations of the aftermath of modern warfare, pre-empts this current. The Charge of the Light Brigade was an ignominious military failure with devastating casualties. The photograph strikes a very different note from Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poetic tribute to their heroism.
Unlike the other two works explored in this exhibition, which are physically anchored within illuminated Psalters and thus within the text of Psalm 23, Fenton’s photograph was not conceived as a response to Psalm 23. However, the juxtaposition of the eerie, almost post-apocalyptic Crimean landscape, with the photograph’s title (The Valley of the Shadow of Death) prefigures some of the later, bleaker, cultural engagements with the Psalm, such as Clint Eastwood’s Pale Rider (1985) or Coolio’s Gangsta’s Paradise (1995). Fenton’s photograph lacks any sense of the religious certainty that pervades the rest of the Psalm, as well as the other images in this exhibition. It is therefore a partial yet deeply unsettling visualization that invites us to see Psalm 23 in an alternative light.
Beit-Arie, Malachi, Emanuel Silver, and Thérèse Metzger. 1996: The Parma Psalter: A Thirteenth-century Illuminated Hebrew Book of Psalms with a Commentary by Abraham Ibn Ezra (London: Facsimile Editions)
Collé-Bak, Nathalie. 2007: ‘The Role of Illustrations in the Reception of The Pilgrim’s Progress’, in Reception, Appropriation, Recollection: Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, ed. by W. Owens and Stuart Sims (Oxford: Peter Lang), pp. 81–97
Gillingham, Susan. 2018: Psalms Through the Centuries: Volume 2 (Oxford: Wiley Blackwell)
Grant, Simon 2005: ‘A Terrible Beauty’, Tate Etc, 5, available at https://www.tate.org.uk/tate-etc/issue-5-autumn-2005/terrible-beauty
Groth, Helen. 2002. ‘Technological mediations and the public sphere: Roger Fenton’s Crimea exhibition and “The Charge of the Light Brigade”’, Victorian Literature and Culture, 30.2: 553–70
Roncace, Mark. n.d. ‘Psalm 23 as Cultural Icon’, www.bibleodyssey.org, available at www.bibleodyssey.org:443/en/passages/related-articles/psalm-23-as-cultural-icon
23The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want;
2he makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters;
3he restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness
for his name’s sake.
4Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I fear no evil;
for thou art with me;
thy rod and thy staff,
they comfort me.
5Thou preparest a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
thou anointest my head with oil,
my cup overflows.
6Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life;
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord