Psalm 133

As One

Commentaries by Alison Gray

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Vincent van Gogh

The Cottage, 1885, Oil on canvas, 65.7 x 79.3 cm, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam [Vincent van Gogh Foundation]; s0087V1962, Courtesy of the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

When Kindred Live Together

Commentary by Alison Gray

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An enticing glow radiates from the interior of this weathered thatched cottage, its warm colour picked up again in the orange-streaked sky at dusk. Our eye is drawn to the homely figure of a woman entering one of the two doorways, inviting us to imagine the cosy scene inside.

Reading the painting through the lens of Psalm 133, one can see something of the beauty and simplicity of community life that so captivated Vincent van Gogh. It is one in a series of studies of farm cottages in Hoogeveen in the Netherlands, which Van Gogh visited in 1885. Writing to his brother Theo, Van Gogh described the cottages as ‘four little human nests’—a description which suggests he thought of them as symbols of comfort, shelter, and unity (Van Gogh 1885, #418). The cottage represented here houses two families, as suggested by the two front doors and the shared split chimney. Van Gogh likened it to an elderly couple, ‘worn with age, who have grown into one being and are seen leaning on each other’ (Van Gogh 1885, #410).

The three short verses of Psalm 133 provide a meditation on the goodness and blessing of kindred living together in unity. It is possible that the wisdom saying in verse 1 originally emerged in the family home, although its context in the psalm allows the interpretation of ‘kindred’ to include all those in the family of faith. The psalm forms part of a collection called the ‘Songs of Ascents’, originally sung by pilgrims journeying to the temple in Jerusalem. Images of family life are woven throughout these psalms (e.g. 122:8; 127:3–5; 128:3, 6; 131:2), fostering in the pilgrims’ imaginations a picture of corporate identity. The cottage in Van Gogh’s painting captures this sense of blessing, and—even amidst poor and harsh living conditions—of the goodness and peacefulness one can find in community.



Van Gogh, Vincent. 1885. ‘Letter to Theo van Gogh, c.1 June 1885’, trans. by Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, ed. by Robert Harrison, #410, [accessed 6 October 2020]

———. 1885. ‘Letter to Theo van Gogh, July 1885’, trans. by Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, ed. by Robert Harrison, #418, [accessed 6 October 2020]

Auguste Rodin

The Burghers of Calais, 1884–95, Bronze, 219.5 x 266 x 211.5 cm, Place du Soldat Inconnu, Calais; Photo Provider Network / Alamy Stock Photo

Even As a Unity

Commentary by Alison Gray

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No eye contact exists between these six emaciated figures, shoulders hunched, draped in sackcloth. They stand together, united by their fate, yet alone in their individual agony, each one facing in a different direction. Having volunteered to sacrifice their own lives for the sake of their city, Calais, Auguste Rodin has captured the men here at the point when they give themselves up. They carry the keys to the city, as instructed by their victors, and have nooses around their necks.

The sculpture provides a particularly poignant counterpoint to Psalm 133. Rather than a joyful throng singing psalms as they make pilgrimage to the dwelling-place of the Lord, the members of this group stand together to face death for the sake of their brothers and sisters in the city, which they serve. Both groups journey in hope of divine blessing: one in worship, the other in death.

Rodin’s sculpture was commissioned in 1885 by the council of Calais to commemorate the city’s heroes from the Hundred Years War between England and France. According to the fourteenth-century historian Jean Froissart, King Edward III of England struck a bargain with the people of Calais after besieging them for eleven months: six members of the city council would surrender their lives in exchange for the city’s freedom (Benedek 2000: 11). Rather than a sculpture of their leader, Eustache de Saint-Pierre, Rodin crafted a group composition to express the solidarity of their shared sacrifice.

The first verse of Psalm 133 is often translated ‘How good and pleasant it is when kindred dwell together in unity’. In the original Hebrew, the word ‘even’ (gam) emphasizes that it is not just living together that brings divine blessings but doing it ‘even as a unity’.

In Rodin’s sculpture, no single figure is elevated or given more prominence than another. Without a pedestal, those passing by would have been challenged to contemplate the reality of self-sacrifice as an act of solidarity with one’s community. The six men were willing to stand together ‘even as a unity’ on behalf of their civic family in the hope of God’s blessings on them all.



Benedek, Nelly Silagy. 2000. Auguste Rodin: The Burghers of Calais: A Resource for Teachers (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Ludwig Mittermaier

Psalm 132 (133), 'Ecce quam bonum', 19th century, Stained glass, Evangelische Stadtkirche Ravensburg; Feld 1b, Photo: Andreas Praefcke

A Plea for Peace

Commentary by Alison Gray

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At the foot of Ludwig Mittermaier’s imposing stained-glass portrait of the Lutheran reformer and clergyman Johannes Brenz, there is an intriguing panel. It depicts a hen with its egg, surrounded, enigmatically, by an inscription of the first verse of Psalm 133 in an arc: Siehe, wie fein und lieblich ist es, daß Brüder einträchtig beieinander wohnen (‘See, how fine and delightful it is when brothers dwell peaceably together’).

Tradition has it that Brenz survived for fourteen days in an attic, hiding from the Spanish troops in Stuttgart, visited by a hen who laid an egg each day (Langsam 2019: 130). The chicken and its egg thus serve as a witness of divine provision for Brenz when he was in need, just as the prophet Elijah received provisions from ravens in the desert (1 Kings 17:1–6).

The inscription of Psalm 133:1, however, strikes a tragic note in the context of the Reformation. A testimony to the blessings that proceed from unity between believers, the psalm stands as a witness to Brenz’s advocacy for church unity at a time marked by division and violence (Whitford 2012: 377–8). In the portrait (not shown here), Brenz is depicted proudly armed with his creed, the Württemberg Confession, which he had prepared for the Council of Trent in 1552. Reading Psalm 133 through this window turns the psalm into a challenge and an ongoing plea for unity and peace in the Church.

The seven Reformation windows were created in the 1860s when the church of Ravensburg was renovated, and played a central part in shaping the identity of this evangelical community in a predominantly Catholic town (Langsam 2019: 130). In this context, the opening verse from Psalm 133 could be understood as a celebration of the fellowship of this particular community. As they gathered together to worship God, they were seeking the same blessings of God’s presence as were the ancient pilgrims to the Temple in Jerusalem who sang this psalm.



Langsam, Friedrich. 2019. ‘Das theologische Programm der Ravensburger Reformatorenfenster’, in Die Reformatorenfenster der Evangelischen Stadtkirche Ravensburg: Bericht zur Erforschung der Glasmalerei von Ludwig Mittermaier, ed. by Dunja Kielmann, Susann Seyfert, and Otto Wölbert, Arbeitsheft 37 (Esslingen am Neckar: Jan Thorbecke Verlag)

Whitford, David M. (ed.). 2012. T & T Clark Companion to Reformation Theology (London: T & T Clark), pp. 377–78

Vincent van Gogh :

The Cottage, 1885 , Oil on canvas

Auguste Rodin :

The Burghers of Calais, 1884–95 , Bronze

Ludwig Mittermaier :

Psalm 132 (133), 'Ecce quam bonum', 19th century , Stained glass

The Art of Life

Comparative commentary by Alison Gray

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Psalm 133, a reflection on the blessings of unity, is the penultimate psalm in a collection called the Songs of Ascents (Psalms 120–134), possibly a liturgy for pilgrims on their way to the Temple in Jerusalem. The polyvalence of its opening proverb invites a generative conversation with three radically different artworks, all from the nineteenth century: ‘How good and how pleasant it is when kindred live together, even as one!’ (Psalm 133:1 NRSV). Among the community of pilgrims, journeying together to seek the presence of the Lord in Jerusalem, individuals are bound together in their covenant of faith in the God of Israel. Commenting on the psalm, Frank Lothar Hossfeld and Erich Zenger (2011: 479) offer a universal application of its message:

[T]he art of life is the art of community… [w]here the readiness to engage actively on behalf of the common good takes precedence over the success of one’s own demands and over group interests.

In each of the three artworks in this exhibition, the notions of kindred and unity are explored in radically different contexts. Although only a solitary figure is depicted in Vincent van Gogh’s The Cottage, the double-chimneyed house itself and the warm fire within seem to speak of the community and togetherness that the artist found there. In the psalm, the verb yāshab in verse 1 can mean ‘to sit’ or ‘to dwell’. It lends itself to a picture of sitting down to share a meal or a celebration together, of living together in the same house or community, or of being reconciled with one another. Vivid similes in the psalm illustrate the divine blessings of life that are poured out on those who live in unity. The phrase ‘running down’ is repeated three times, creating a dynamic movement of blessings flowing down from heaven.

Working outside amidst the peasant community, Van Gogh had found a peace that he had not experienced before. In the psalm, such blessing is compared to oil being poured on one’s head as a symbol of blessing, which was common in celebratory banquets and for consecration (cf. Psalms 23:5; 92:10; Leviticus 8:12). The high priest Aaron is pictured in the psalm being anointed with oil of ordination. Like God’s abundant blessings, the oil runs not just over Aaron’s head but down his beard, and even down the edge of his garments. Unity in families and communities is not only good and pleasant, but is something holy.

The composition of Auguste Rodin’s bronze sculpture The Burghers of Calais exhibits a fascinating interplay between individuality and unity. The weight here is not that of blessings pouring down. Instead, the figures are weighed down by the burden of their decision to sacrifice their lives for the sake of their city (Benedek 2000: 19). Their hands and feet are disproportionately large, and one figure’s head seems bowed under the pressure of his heavy fingers. Each figure is facing in a different direction, so that there is no front or back of the sculpture as a whole, compelling the viewer to move around it and view it from multiple perspectives. It allowed Rodin to express six different emotional responses to the same event, all of the individuals wrestling in their own way with the enormity of the choice they have made. Yet the figures are connected, literally, in the material of the sculpture, and formally, through the use of shared casts of faces, hands, and heads (Benedek 2000: 22).

The psalm’s second poetic image is drawn from nature, of dew watering the mountains. Mount Hermon (on the present-day border between Lebanon and Syria) is far up in the north, and known for its abundance of dew. Such a vision could suggest that it speaks of re-unifying the country of Israel (Berlin 1987: 145), as the divine gift of refreshing dew covers every surface, giving strength, fertility, and life (cf. Hosea 14:6). As a theologian and preacher, Johannes Brenz would have been painfully aware of the passages in Scripture advocating unity, and the potential blessings it can bring. The psalm inscription below his stained-glass portrait testifies to his desire for reconciliation between Lutherans and Catholics.

Each artwork displayed here speaks powerfully of unity and community as a force for good: Rodin’s sculpture of selflessness giving life; Van Gogh’s painting of the peace and simplicity of shared lives; and Ludwig Mittermaier’s window of peace, order, and hope for reconciliation. Each one resonates with Paul’s encouragement to the Corinthian community:

Finally, brothers and sisters, rejoice! Aim for full restoration, comfort one another, be of one mind, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you’.(2 Corinthians 13:11 own translation)



Benedek, Nelly Silagy. 2000. Auguste Rodin: The Burghers of Calais: A Resource for Teachers (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Berlin, Adele. 1987. ‘On the interpretation of Psalm 133’, in Directions in Hebrew Poetry, ed. by Elaine R. Follis, JSOTSup 40 (Sheffield: JSOT Press), pp. 141–48

Hossfeld, Frank-Lothar and Erich Zenger. 2011. Psalms 3: A Commentary on Psalms 101–150, Hermeneia, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press)


Next exhibition: Psalms 137

Psalm 133

Revised Standard Version

A Song of Ascents.

133Behold, how good and pleasant it is

when brothers dwell in unity!

2It is like the precious oil upon the head,

running down upon the beard,

upon the beard of Aaron,

running down on the collar of his robes!

3It is like the dew of Hermon,

which falls on the mountains of Zion!

For there the Lord has commanded the blessing,

life for evermore.