Oh, How I Love Thy Law!
A Complex Scheme
Commentary by Anders Bergquist
In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, a number of churches in and around Rome were provided with new and richly decorated floors, fashioned out of pieces of marble cut from the many ancient columns and marble facings to be found among the city’s ruins. There were at least three main families of marble workers responsible for this work; they are known collectively as the ‘Cosmati’, and the style of flooring as ‘cosmatesque’.
The eighth-century church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin was given a new floor as part of an extensive rebuilding. It was dedicated in 1123, which makes it one of the best-dated of cosmatesque floors.
The intricate marble geometry of these floor designs calls to mind the intricate formal construction of Psalm 119. The floor is divided into panels, within which pieces of coloured marble are set in patterns in which various rhythms and correspondences can be traced, all subordinated to the total impression of the design. Usually, only four marble types are used: porphyry, serpentine, giallo antico, and white. The individual pieces of marble are cut into a restricted range of geometrical shapes, and the smaller shapes are used to build larger ones. These patterns are not absolutely regular or symmetrical, but they create a powerful impression of order and design.
Psalm 119 is divided into eight-verse panels, within which eight synonyms for Torah are distributed across each panel like patterned selections of stone, but without an absolutely regular distribution of words. Yet there is a strong sense of order and design, held within the psalm’s acrostic frame.
It is a striking coincidence that Santa Maria in Cosmedin lies on the edge of Rome’s medieval Jewish quarter. As the craftsmen were setting the patterns of marble into a new floor for the church, Jewish students were studying Torah and reciting psalmody almost literally next door.
Glass, Dorothy F. 1980. Studies on Cosmatesque pavements, British Archaeological Reports, International Series 82 (Oxford: Oxbow Books)
On the Lips and in the Heart
Commentary by Anders Bergquist
Three adolescent boys sit at three desks, memorizing Torah. The light falls from the right, illuminating the concentration of their faces. Eyes are on the text; one head is steadied on a hand in concentration. The low camera angle, and the quality of the light, give their heads a sculptural quality. The diagonal plane of the books and desktops structures the space, as though architecturally.
The work is by Alfred Bernheim (1885–1974), who made his name in Berlin as a photographer of architecture and interiors, until he was forced in 1934 to emigrate to what was then Mandate Palestine. He went on to become a leading teacher and practitioner of photography in the new State of Israel, specializing in portraits and architectural studies.
This image was captured in the Mandate years, but it is timeless. Here are direct descendants of the ‘young men’ of Psalm 119:9, as one might encounter them at any time in Jewish history. They appropriate and internalize the words of the Law through quiet repetitive vocalization: what the psalter calls ‘meditation’, a term which does not imply a silent activity—the lips of all three boys are open in movement. The discipline of their learning is to be mirrored in the discipline of their lives, ordered by the precepts, the statutes, the ordinances, and the commandments of the Lord.
There is more than a hint of the Three Young Men of the Book of Daniel, whose fidelity to God’s Law saved them from the burning fiery furnace, and caused them to be set in high office in the kingdom of Babylon (Daniel 3). High office or not, Bernheim has captured an image of legal study for the sake of blessing. This is ‘scribal wisdom’, a tradition as self-sufficient as the three boys in their simple space.
Commentary by Anders Bergquist
Psalm 119 has an important place in Christian monastic use. When St Benedict (c.480–c.550) instructed his monks how to recite the whole psalter across the course of each week, he distributed Psalm 119 across the Lesser Hours of Terce, Sext and None: his monks had to meditate on the theme of God’s Law in the middle of each day. The fact itself that the Daily Office has seven episodes of prayer across the day is explicitly connected in Benedict’s Rule to Psalm 119:164 (‘seven times a day I praise you’). Daily meditation, both on this psalm and on a whole range of scriptural texts, developed the visual imagination, and allowed familiar texts to be ‘seen’ in new ways.
In 1436, Cosimo de’ Medici (by then the de facto ruler of Florence) persuaded the Pope to transfer the existing convent of San Marco into the control of Observant Dominicans. The architect Michelozzo was asked to reconstruct the buildings, and Fra Angelico—himself a Dominican, for he had entered the novitiate at Fiesole between 1420 and 1422—was commissioned to fresco the cells and the communal spaces. Each friar was provided with a fresco in his cell, to provide a focus for his own meditation.
The centre of the fresco in Cell 7 represents the mocking of Christ. The spitting and the blows are not shown as an observer might have seen and drawn them, but rather as the blindfolded victim experienced them—the work of disconnected hands and instruments. So too the friar might have felt himself experiencing them, as he entered into the scriptural story through an act of imaginative reconstruction.
The Virgin Mary and Saint Dominic are seated outside the Passion scene. Dominic is deep in meditation over a book. His chin rests gently on the tips of the fingers of his right hand, while the curve of his body under the black and white habit expresses his absorption in the text open before him. His tonsured head is bowed slightly over the book. This, clearly, is an inward and spiritual activity that goes beyond simple reading. It has even been suggested that Fra Angelico specifically intended to represent ‘meditative reading’, the eighth mode of prayer in De modo orandi, a thirteenth-century account of Dominic’s own life of prayer.
Assuming so, the fresco perfectly captures a kind of meditative beyond-reading that has been part of the life of Psalm 119 in both Jewish and Christian tradition, ever since it was written.
Hood, William. 1993. Fra Angelico at San Marco (New Haven: Yale University Press)
Cosmati family :
Detail of a Cosmati floor, 11th century , Marble
Alfred Bernheim :
Torah studies, Undated, before 1974 , Gelatin silver print
Fra Angelico :
The Mocking of Christ, Cell 7, 1440–42 , Fresco
Taking It All In
Commentary by Anders Bergquist
Psalm 119 is by far the longest psalm in the biblical psalter. Its 176 verses are divided into twenty-two sections of eight verses each, arranged acrostically: the first eight verses all begin with the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet (aleph), the second eight begin with the second letter (beth), and so on down to the last eight verses which begin with the twenty-second letter (tau). This scheme, which is fundamental to the structure of the psalm, is invisible in almost all English translations (Ronald Knox bravely followed it in his 1949 translation of the Old Testament: because the English alphabet has twenty-six letters to Hebrew’s twenty-two, Knox could discard Q, X, Y, and Z).
The acrostic alone is enough to connect this psalm with the ‘wisdom’ tradition of the Old Testament, and specifically with that strand of it often called ‘scribal wisdom’: a style marked by reflection on lived experience, by love of God’s Law (the Torah) as the criterion of both devotion and action, and by encouragement to young men to study. The ‘young man’ (na‘ar) of verse 9—often pluralized as ‘the young’ or ‘young people’ in recent English versions for the sake of gender-inclusivity, but undoubtedly a young male individual student of Torah in the original setting of Psalm 119—is the assumed reciter and student of the psalm. Blessings will come to him if he continues faithfully in the study and practice of the Law.
‘Blessings’ (NRSV: ‘Happy is’) is itself a wisdom keyword, and has the advantage of beginning in Hebrew with the letter aleph ( אַשְׁרֵי asherē). It is the opening word of Psalm 119, and of the psalter as a whole (Psalm 1:1).
The use of an acrostic need not imply a late date. Psalm 119 can have been composed at any time in which the Torah was the object of study and meditation—from the restoration of the Law under Ezra at the very end of the sixth century BCE (or even the ‘reform’ of Josiah in the late seventh century) to the time of the Maccabees in the second century.
The oldest of this exhibition’s three images, a detail of cosmatesque pavement from the church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin in Rome, functions almost like an illustration in floor mosaic of the structure of the psalm. Within each eight-verse section, the psalmist declares his commitment to God’s Law as a guide for conduct, as the object of meditation, and as a source of delight. He meditates on this Law day and night. Almost every verse of the psalm deploys one or more of eight words from within a closely related word-group, always with the possessive ‘your’, i.e. God’s: way(s), law, decrees, precepts, statutes, commandments, ordinances, word(s). To these eight Torah-related keywords can be added promise, meditation, and judgement(s). As one section of the psalm follows another, tile after tile is added to the mosaic of the heart’s fidelity and submission to God’s Law. The psalmist is convinced of his own rightness: contrasted, in a way characteristic of scribal wisdom, with the insolent, the wicked, and the arrogant, who neglect God’s Law, and scheme against the psalmist. But God will surely deliver those who are faithful to his Law. Torah is not only direction and delight, but a security against enemies.
The acrostic is an aid to memory. This is a psalm to be learned in steady recitation, and has a long history of use in meditation and prayer—in both Jewish and Christian traditions. Alfred Bernheim’s Torah students speak their words aloud. Fra Angelico’s St Dominic prays through his text in silence. Both are engaged in an immemorial practice of a reading that goes beyond words.
Dell, Katharine. 2000. ‘Get wisdom, get insight’: An introduction to Israel’s wisdom literature (London: Darton, Longman, and Todd)
Romald A. Knox. 1949. The Old Testament, Volume II, Job-Machabees (London: Burns Oates & Washbourne Ltd)