Over Troubled Water
Order and Chaos
Commentary by Jonathan Homrighausen
The 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.
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)
Commentary by Jonathan Homrighausen
I am not trying to illustrate the text of the psalms, as such, but to reach a place in an inner landscape, a state of being. The artwork in the end is the accumulated work upon a meditation upon a specific text and I hope that the text will be felt when viewing the art work. My desire to create visual meditations on the psalms springs from the desire to make the inner life visible. (Winter 2017a)
In his psalmic paintings, Quaker painter Bernard C. Winter aims not solely to capture the imagery in a given psalm, but also to use painting as a form of meditation on the psalm’s emotional journey. Winter’s focus on his inner life and relationship with Christ as he meditates on a psalm reflects the biblical theologian Ellen F. Davis’s account of the Psalms as ‘instructed emotion’ (Davis 2005: 21). Here the artist incorporates both image and text, his own translation drawn creatively from several English versions.
Winter’s use of shape and colour conveys what he sees as the dual emotional impact of Psalm 93 (Winter 2017b). He writes: ‘My vision of the psalm was that of two energies—a driving chaotic force, and a majestic, stabilizing force would be interacting’. The ‘driving chaotic force’ is here captured by the whirling hurricane, bounded in by the ‘outstretched arms’ of the Latin cross.
By incorporating the bold capital letters of the psalm in his painting, Winter both makes the letters into images and emphasizes the textual basis of this artwork. These letters are solid and weighty, just as God’s testimony is sure (v.5). The bright, vivid contrast between the blue background and the bright red lettering again reflects the dual emotional energy of the psalm.
Winter’s Latin cross suggests a christological dimension to his interpretation of Psalm 93; he writes that when creating it he was thinking of Gospel accounts of Jesus calming stormy waters (Matthew 8:23–27; Mark 4:35–41; Luke 8:22–25). This painting, then, reflects the prayerful lectio divina behind all Winter’s artwork—a canonical-scriptural imagination at work, finding vivid expression in a visual medium.
Davis, Ellen F. 2005. Wondrous Depth: Preaching the Old Testament (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press)
Winter, Bernard C. 2017a. ‘About the Psalm Series, 28 October 2017’, www.bernardcwinterart.com, [accessed 19 August 2019]
———. 2017b. ‘Psalm 93 and Reflections on the Psalm, 28 October 2017’, www.bernardcwinterart.com, [accessed 19 August 2019]
The Waters Rise Up
Commentary by Jonathan Homrighausen
While not strictly a visual depiction of Psalm 93, Rembrandt van Rijn’s painting depicts a Gospel story (Matthew 8:23–27; Mark 4:35–41; Luke 8:22–25) that strongly echoes the Psalmist’s imagery of God’s mightiness over the raging waters of the sea. Rembrandt’s painting captures the complexity of both the psalm’s imagery and the psychology of the various characters in the Gospel scene.
Biblically, water is a multivalent image, at times lifesaving (‘As a deer longs for flowing streams’, Psalm 42:1) and at other times life-threatening (as in the story of the Flood, Genesis 6–9). Similarly, the Palmist is unclear about whether the waters are lifted in praise of God or are in rebellion against God. Rembrandt conveys this ambiguity as our eyes move about the painting. On the right, the waves and sky are dark, brooding, threatening. But on the left, the clouds part, light comes in, and the bubbly-white waves are painted with delicate texture, more fluffy than frightful (Walsh 1985: 48–49).
Whereas the Gospel accounts of this scene portray the disciples as a group, every figure in Rembrandt’s visual meditation adds detail to its narrative drama. For example, five disciples hold tight the sails, trying to keep the boat afloat, not realizing the true source of their impending deliverance. One vomits overboard, too afflicted in body to focus on his master.
The characters’ gazes also convey important dynamics of the scene. Only three look at Jesus, who appears serene, perhaps having just awoken from his nap. One disciple turns his back both to us and to Jesus: is he dozing through the storm, like Jonah? Or is he so trusting in God that he doesn’t feel the need to wake Jesus at all? The disciple next to him gazes directly at us. His staring eyes, coupled with the variety of responses catalogued in the painting, ask the viewer the same challenging questions the story asks the reader: ‘What sort of man is this?’; ‘Where is your faith?’ (Durham 2004: 14–15, 30–33).
Durham, John I. 2004. The Biblical Rembrandt: Human Painter in a Landscape of Faith (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press)
Walsh, John. 1985. ‘Observations on Rembrandt’s “Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee”’, Notes in the History of Art, 5.1: 44–52
Unknown artist, Reims/Hautvillers :
Psalm 92 (93 MT), from Utrecht Psalter, c.820–45 , Pen drawing on parchment
Bernard C. Winter :
Psalm 93, 2017 , Acrylic on panels
Rembrandt van Rijn :
Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee, 1633 , Oil on canvas
The Waters, the King, and the Temple
Commentary by Jonathan Homrighausen
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.
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)