The Parma Psalter is a rare example of a Jewish illuminated Psalter, produced in Italy during a time of Jewish persecution. Puzzlingly, this Psalter seems alone in having escaped the prohibition on human representation that applied to (extant) contemporaneous Ashkanazi manuscripts (see Beit-Arie, Silver & Metzger 1996: 103–07). One artist is thought to have produced all its 102 illuminations. Text and image are interwoven with each other, resulting in intricate geometric designs.
Deep knowledge of the Hebrew text of the Psalms has resulted in an iconographic schema which bears little relation to the established Christian iconography of the Psalms, itself influenced by the Vulgate translation of Psalm 23:4. In the Vulgate translation the Hebrew word salmawet (meaning deep shadow or death shadow; BDB 6757) became (via the Septuagint’s σκιᾶς θανάτου) ‘the shadow of death’. The single Hebrew word became two words; death became a freestanding noun rather than a intensifying qualifier of ‘shadow’. This reinforced a Christian interpretation that looked to redemption in another world beyond this mortal one.
Within the Jewish tradition, by contrast, instead of conveying a promise of eschatological deliverance (from the ‘valley of the shadow of death’), the Psalm is seen to celebrate God’s constant presence in this life, even through exile and other negative experiences (see Gillingham 2018: 144–47).
This more hopeful, ‘this-worldly’ Jewish interpretation of the Psalm is reflected in the Parma artist’s decision to focus on the joyful opening of the Psalm, which emphasizes God’s loving care for his people on earth. The Psalmist, a symbol of ‘God’s people’, is thus portrayed as a human figure with a dog’s head, wearing a brown hat with a distinctive rim, and sitting on a grassy knoll next to a river. The mixing of human and animal bodies is common in the Parma psalter (although unusual elsewhere) and may be a visual nod to the notion, which runs through the Psalms, that every creature should participate in the universal praise of God’s glory (Beit-Arie, Silver & Metzger 1996: 103).
Accordingly, this hybrid Psalmist figure raises his hands in supplication, whilst a brightly-coloured bird flies above him. He conveys the spirit of the original Jewish exile, encouraging his viewers to stay faithful and hopeful during their own period of persecution.
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)
Gillingham, Susan. 2018: Psalms Through the Centuries: Volume 2 (Oxford: Wiley Blackwell)
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