Psalm 136 (Psalm 137) from St Albans Psalter by Unknown English artist

Unknown English artist

Psalm 136 (Psalm 137), from St Albans Psalter, c.1119–45, Manuscript illumination on vellum, 27.6 x 18.4 cm, Dombibliothek, Hildesheim, MS St God. 1 (Property of the Basilica of St. Godehard, Hildesheim), fol. 175v, www.dombibliothek-hildesheim.de

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Singing and Scheming

Commentary by

One of the most important survivors among early English Romanesque decorated manuscripts, the twelfth-century St Albans Psalter has virtually no equal in the lavishness and refinement of its decoration, of which this letter 'S' is a prime example.

Believed to have been owned by the anchoress Christina of Markyate, the pages of this devotional and liturgical book are decorated with 215 large historiated initials. Beautifully laid out, each illustrated initial involves a compression of verbal imagery that both represents and enhances the affective character of the psalm.

Inside the ‘S’ initial that appears at the top of Psalm 137 (Psalm 136 for the monks who used Jerome’s version of the Psalms) a body of water seems to spill down the page in serpentine fashion. Filled with fish, the river-like shape symbolizes the rivers of Babylon that appear in verse 1. Elongated bodies surround the swirling initial, seated on the banks of this river. These beardless figures represent the Israelites in the garb of monks. And while most of the figures rest their chins in their hands, in an apparent gesture of sorrow (Haney 2002: 621), a few seem to call out to one another. One also holds his head in his hands.

At the top of the illuminated initial, one man hangs his harp on a tree. At the bottom, two men engage in discussion, perhaps planning retribution for the sufferings inflicted on them in their exile. This assembly of exiles, synecdoches for the children of Israel, is homesick in a foreign land. With drooped shoulders suggesting despondency, these figures sit and weep in remembrance of Zion. Some appear to lament, others to be angry. Three women are included among them. Whether listless, resigned, or in intense despair, the words of the psalmist come to life in visual form here in a company of people suffering the misery of exile. As they sit on the edge of the river, we may imagine them on the edge of despair. But they do not sit alone; they sit together alongside a river that teems with life.

 

References

Haney, Kristine. 2002. The St. Albans Psalter: An Anglo-Norman Song of Faith (New York: Peter Lang)