Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Penitential Psalms

Folio 66r

Above: Detail of illumination from Folio 66r from the Belles Heures of Jean de France, duc de Berry, 1405–1408/9. Herman, Paul, and Jean de Limbourg (Franco-Netherlandish, active in France by 1399–1416). French; Made in Paris. Ink, tempera, and gold leaf on vellum; 9 3/8 x 6 5/8 in. (23.8 x 16.8 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Cloisters Collection, 1954 (54.1.1).

The Book of Psalms from the Hebrew Bible forms the backbone of a great deal of Christian liturgy, and the text of the psalms provided much of the text of a standard book of hours. In addition to the psalms embedded within various sections throughout the manuscript, many books of hours, including the Belles Heures, have a specific section dedicated to the seven penitential psalms (Psalms 6, 31, 37, 50, 101, 129, and 142 in the Douai translation).

In the Book of Psalms as a whole, which constitutes 150 sacred poems, many of the texts have titles, also called superscriptions. Some of these superscriptions identify a psalm’s author, while others indicate its historical occasion or liturgical use. Some of the titles attribute individual psalms to King David, an attribution that has been extended to include all the psalms in both the Jewish and Christian religions. By the time of the Septuagint (the ancient Greek translation of the Jewish scriptures) in the mid-third century B.C., the titles already had a long history within the Jewish tradition.

In most books of hours the Penitential Psalms are prefaced with a single image of David, but in the Belles Heures, each psalm gets a small illumination. These psalms beseeching forgiveness would have been interpreted by medieval readers in terms of the historical stories of David as a repentant sinner. David’s rise to king from his origins as a simple shepherd, his sins of adultery with Bathsheba and of ordering the murder of her husband, and his succession struggles with his son Absalom are recounted not in the psalter itself, but in the biblical Books of Kings (called Samuel and Kings in other editions).

Text and Image

In “The Story of Saint Catherine,” we discussed the idea of the “picture book” sections of the Belles Heures, in which the illuminations truly illustrate the text by presenting narrative scenes that depict the episodes of the story. Conversely, as I mentioned in last week’s discussion of the Hours of the Virgin, the pictures in the devotional sections of the manuscript do not illustrate the text but rather provide a theme for meditation in parallel to the text—the illuminations are “painted prayers,” to use Roger Wieck’s inspired phrase. In the section we’re discussing today, the Belles Heures presents us with another set of relationships between text and image.

The Penitential Psalms demonstrate three different approaches to text and image, all of which have precedents in earlier psalters and books of hours. The psalms themselves are richly metaphorical poetry, full of abstract concepts. In some cases, earlier artists coped with these abstractions by literally illustrating individual phrases. This was the method pioneered in the Utrecht Psalter (see digital facsimile; Internet Explorer only) in Carolingian times (800–911), and it appears in the Belles Heures on Folio 67v, where the words “thy arrows are fastened in me” are depicted literally:

Folio 67v

Illumination from Folio 67v

The second approach to illustrating one of these psalms is to conflate and summarize the entire text within a single image of penitence and reward. An example of this approach is seen on Folio 66v. In the text, which comes from Psalm 31, the penitent says, “I have acknowledged my sin to thee,” and learns that “mercy shall encompass him”; this is translated into an image of a kneeling king and a responding God above:

Folio 66v

Illumination from Folio 66v

Finally, the third approach turns to the historical books of the Bible, which tell the narrative of David. In some cases, as on Folio 68v (Psalm 50), the title of the psalm rather than its text determines the content of the illumination. The text of this psalm rather generically asks for God’s mercy and confesses iniquity, but the title is explicit about the sin in question: “A psalm of David, when Nathan the prophet came to him, after he had sinned with Bathsheba.” Accordingly, the illumination shows Nathan admonishing the king. Another example of this approach is Folio 72r, based on Psalm 142, in which David is shown fleeing from his son Absalom.

Folio 68v Folio 72r

Illuminations from Folio 68v and Folio 72r

In five of the Penitential Psalm pages, David is shown as a king, but in two (Folio 70r, Psalm 101, and Folio 71v, Psalm 129; see below) he is shown without a crown, hiding in a cave and calling out to God. Again we find the rationale for these illustrations by looking back to the biblical history books: in I Kings 22 (I Samuel 22 in other editions) David hides in a cave from Saul, an incident that took place before David was king. The scene was represented as early as the ninth century in a psalter now in St. Gallen in Switzerland (see image). Neither the texts nor the titles of the psalms illustrated on Folios 70r and 71v refer to this incident, but their association with David is sufficient to justify elements of the illumination. Unfortunately, the David story does not explain everything, for in both folios there are extra figures that defy absolute interpretation.

Folio 70r Folio 71v

Illuminations from Folio 70r and Folio 71v

Small Pictures, Changing Patrons

The illuminations of this section of the manuscript are less impressive than the immediately preceding sections of full-page illuminations in the Story of Saint Catherine and the Hours of the Virgin; they occupy only half a column of text, or one-quarter of the page. In this aspect they are closer to the format of the first manuscript by the Limbourg Brothers, a moralized Bible (Bible Moralisée) they had begun for Duke Philip the Bold of Burgundy, who was the brother of Jean de Berry. That manuscript (Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Ms Fr166; see image) was not yet finished when Duke Philip the Bold died in 1404, and remained unfinished when shortly thereafter the Limbourgs came into the employ of Jean de Berry and began work on the Belles Heures. The small paintings accompanying the Penitential Psalms were among the first to be painted for their new patron, and clearly reflect the scale on which they were accustomed to work. Duke Philip the Bold of Burgundy had wanted the boys to copy a previous moralized Bible and had held back their scope of invention; when they went to work for the Duke of Berry, they were given greater artistic freedom, and they took it and ran. What a leap forward! Compared with the restrained palette in the Bible Moralisée, color is unleashed in the Belles Heures and continued to develop further as the Limbourg brothers matured.

—Wendy A. Stein

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Comments (3)

  1. The Penitential Psalms | The Art of Illumination | ScriptingArts.Com Says:
  2. Susan Buckley Says:

    Dear Wendy:
    Thank you for this series of fascinating and enlightening journeys into the exquisite Belles Heures. Each of these essays is a gem unto itself. I urge the Met to consider collecting them in a booklet to accompany the Belles Heures once it is rebound!

  3. Wendy A. Stein Says:

    Dear Susan,
    Thank you for your extremely kind words and for taking the time to participate in the discussion. The Belles Heures is a continual inspiration.

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