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Psalm 92 [93 MT] from Utrecht Psalter by Unknown artist, Reims/Hautvillers
Psalm 93 by Bernard C. Winter
Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee by Rembrandt van Rijn

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

Bernard C. Winter

Psalm 93, 2017, Acrylic on panels, 101 x 152 cm, Private Collection, © Bernard C. Winter; Photo: Courtesy of the Artist

Rembrandt van Rijn

Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee, 1633, Oil on canvas, 160 x 128 cm, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston; Stolen in 1990, P21s24, Photo: Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston / HIP / Art Resource

The Waters, the King, and the Temple

Comparative Commentary by

All three of these works may be considered visual meditations on Psalm 93 and employ an explicitly christological lens, connecting the vivid imagery of kingship, chaotic waters, and the Temple to texts and metaphors describing Christ in the New Testament. Yet the illuminator of the Utrecht Psalter, Bernard C. Winter, and Rembrandt van Rijn all employ their shared lens in different modes, and pick up different aspects of the psalm’s imagery and different scriptural connections.

This christological interpretation of Psalm 93 begins in patristic exegesis. For those interpreters from the first few centuries of the Church’s life, ‘the Lord’s’ kingship is envisioned as Christ sitting on the Davidic throne, having defeated Satan. The waves rising up become the apostles praising God; the voices of many waters are the nations praising Christ; and the house of God becomes the Church universal (Wesselschmidt 2007: 178–79; Heine 1995: 149; Walsh 1990: 397–98; Gillingham 2015: 91). Athanasius’s Letter to Marcellinus suggests praying this psalm on the day before Sabbath: ‘for at that time when the crucifixion occurred, the house of God [cf. v.5] was built up, indeed, to hold off the enemies that assault it’ (Gregg 1980: 120–21). In current liturgical practice, Psalm 93 is selected for Ascension Thursday in all three years of the Revised Common Lectionary; the rising up of the waters becomes the rising up of Christ in the Ascension.

Artists engaging the Bible, like any interpreters of the Scriptures, must choose which cues in the text they will focus on and how. These cues may include narrative characters, settings, actions, or objects; they may also include the metaphors, symbols, and emotions that populate the poetry of the Psalter. In its brief five verses, Psalm 93 presents three distinct and multifaceted domains of imagery with which an artist can engage: kingship, waters, and the Temple.

Verses 1–2 focus on the imagery of kingship, with their mention of God’s throne and of the world. Given that the verb malakh can be translated as either ‘God is king’ or ‘God has become king’, the statement can be read in two ways—as describing an eternal kingship or as referring to a particular moment of enthronement. A Christian artist drawn to the latter interpretation might visualize Jesus assuming his full power at the Ascension. The Utrecht Psalter can be read this way: the nimbused Christ-figure may be only about to sit on the throne.

The psalm’s imagery then shifts (vv.3–4) to the pounding waves of the rivers and the sea, using sensory language of both sight and sound. The imagery of water in the psalms leaves it ambiguous whether these waves are lifting up in praise to God (e.g. Psalms 96:11–13; 98:7–9) or in defiance against God (e.g. 74:12–17) (Brown 2002: 105–34). All three of these artworks focus on the latter meaning: God’s might is shown in God’s ability to contain the chaotic waters.

Finally, verse 5 employs Temple imagery in referring to God’s house (bayith), a contrast to the wild waters (cf. Psalms 42–43). Of the three works treated in this exhibition, only the Utrecht Psalter explicitly includes this imagery; but Rembrandt’s fishing-boat might also be seen as a house of divine safety in the midst of chaos.

Contrasting these three works of art enables us to see the choices each artist makes while engaging word and image together.

The Utrecht Psalter’s treatment of Psalm 93 attempts to include all the psalm’s imagery, all its details. It even adds more details—though at the risk of seeming cluttered and requiring of us a concentrated investment of interpretative energy.

Winter focuses on the waters, but paints the words of the psalm into the composition itself; their forms and their colour become intrinsic to the work’s structure and effect.

Rembrandt does not explicitly engage the psalm at all, but his gospel scene strongly echoes the psalmist, reminding us of the complexities of how one passage from the Bible evolves as it moves through time and space.

As we meditate on these three works, we might imagine various artists’ processes of pondering, internalizing, and treasuring the rich language of this short psalm and its many resonances with the whole of Scripture. We can delight in each artist's use of colour, line, depth, and rhythm, seeing each element as part of their journey with the psalm. We in turn can form our own disciplined imagination in the metaphors and images of the Psalter, and translate that into our own form of creation—whether it be an artform or the creation of our lives.

 

References

Brown, William P. 2002. Seeing the Psalms: A Theology of Metaphor (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press)

Gillingham, Susan. 2015. ‘Psalms 90–106: Book Four and the Covenant with David’, European Judaism, 48.2: 83–101

Gregg, Robert C. (ed.). 1980. Athanasius: The Life of Antony and the Letter to Marcellinus, Classics of Western Spirituality (New York: Paulist Press)

Heine, Ronald E. (ed.). 1995. Gregory of Nyssa’s Treatise on the Inscriptions of the Psalms, Oxford Early Christian Studies (Oxford: Clarendon Press)

Walsh, P. G. (trans.). 1990. Cassiodorus: Explanation of the Psalms, vol. 2, Ancient Christian Writers, 52 (New York: Paulist Press)

Wesselschmidt, Quentin F. 2007. Psalms 51–150, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (Downers Grove: IVP Academic)