Psalm 92 [93 MT] from Utrecht Psalter by Unknown artist, Reims/Hautvillers

Unknown artist, Reims/Hautvillers

Psalm 92 (93 MT), from Utrecht Psalter, c.820–45, Pen drawing on parchment, 330 x 255 mm, Utrecht University Library, MS 32, fol. 54v, Photo: Courtesy of Utrecht University Library

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Order and Chaos

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The ninth-century Utrecht Psalter (named for its current location in the University Library in Utrecht), is a ninth-century manuscript believed to have been made near Reims in France. A product of the Carolingian Renaissance, it contains 166 unusually literal pen drawings illustrating the entire Psalter (Horst et al. 1996). These detailed pen illustrations so captivated viewers’ eyes that, in the tenth and eleventh centuries, English scribes made two full copies of it, now known as the Harley Psalter (The British Library) and the Eadwine Psalter (Trinity College, Cambridge).

The artist’s treatment of Psalm 93 (fol. 54v) appears christological (DeWald 1932): in the centre-top figure with halo, nimbus, and mandorla we are invited to see the Lord (that is, Christ) coming into his kingship (v.1). He carries a spear to represent his strength (v.1) and two scrolls to represent his testimony (v.5). Below him two figures—divine beings or human disciples?—prepare his throne (v.2). They are holding books, perhaps alluding to the idea that Jesus fulfilled the Law and the Prophets (Matthew 5:17). Personifications of waters/floods (at left and right) blow on trumpets as they are ‘lifting up their voice’ (v.3). At bottom the surging waves of the sea (v.4), on left and right, are juxtaposed with God’s firmly-established world (v.1). The Temple context of verse 5 appears at bottom-centre with the Tabernacle and worshippers making their appearance. One detail, the six angels surrounding Christ, is wholly absent from the psalm—though perhaps they allude to the six days of creation crowned by the Sabbath.

The dense symbolism of these monochrome illuminations has led to their being described as ‘something like tableaux of pictorial riddles or charades, a form of play and instruction that the reader must decipher’ (Luttikhuizen and Verkerk 2005: 178). In deciphering the Psalm 93 illumination, the viewer is encouraged to go back and forth between image and text, and in so doing to engage with the text more slowly, more carefully, pausing over its rich imagery. And just as the Psalmist contrasts God’s orderly kingship with the chaos of the waters, so the sketch-like chaos of the image contrasts with the neat rows of Latin letters above and below.

 

References

Bessette, Lisa. 2005. ‘The Visualization of the Contents of the Psalms in the Early Middle Ages’ (PhD diss., University of Michigan)

DeWald, Ernest T. 1932. The Illustrations of the Utrecht Psalter (Princeton: Princeton University Press)

Horst, Koert van der et al (eds). 1996. The Utrecht Psalter in Medieval Art: Picturing the Psalms of David (Westrenen: HES)

Luttikhuizen, Henry, and Dorothy Verkerk. 2005. Snyder’s Medieval Art (Upper Saddle River: Pearson)


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