How to Choose Art for the Psalms and the Divine Office, A Summary of Past Principles

If you want to see some of the best Christian art ever created (in my humble opinion) then do a search on google images for 'gothic psalters' or 'illumination medieval'.  By digging around from that starting points you can see wonderful examples of Western and Eastern Christian sacred illumination art. Because the pages have not been displayed in the light for centuries (in contrast to most larger paintings for example) the colors look fresh and design sharp and clean.

Here is one that is Romanesque in style, the St Albans Psalter and is St Mary Magdalene Announcing the Risen Christ. Note the beautifully ornate patterned border!


And another, more gothic, from the De Lisle Psalter:


Whenever I see examples such as these that are part of a tradition of beautiful work that was produced over centuries, I cannot help myself wondering why we don't see artists producing work with these religious qualities today - or not very often anyway. Then I ask myself, how can we help artists to emerge who can do the 21st century equivalent of this art which has a balance of idealism and naturalism and which encourages prayer?

I had to consider just this question recently when I was involved in the creation of an online class about the psalms - the Psalms in Words, Images and Prayer. I contributed to the the 'images' bit of the course. First, I considered the principles by which sacred art has been used to illuminate the psalms in the past; and then I discussed how we might move forward from where we are now in order to create art that will encourage the praying of the psalms.

This article will be in two parts. Today I will offer a summary of the past principles.

Next week, I will discuss where we go from here: in this age of Universalis and iBreviary, for example, should we try to re-establish the traditional psalter by commissioning the creation of a 'retro' Psalter, rather like the St John's Bible project? Or should we create a distinct and new 21st-century approach?.

Images in Traditional Psalters

I considered Psalters and Books of Hours of the Roman Church largely from my favorite period, which is from the Romanesque and Gothic periods, from around 1000AD to the advent of the printing press. For this period that pattern of the order of illumination seems, generally, to be as follows:

Themes relating to the Psalms in general, eg salvation history, or the mysteries of the Faith

St Thomas told us that the Book of Psalms is at the heart of scripture because it contains 'all of theology', encapsulating poetically the historical events that occurred before they were written and pointing to those that occurred afterward. It is no surprise, that in order to illuminate this, artists chose a schema that included themes relating to salvation history. Interpreting this broadly this allows for any of the images we might appropriately in a church or icon corner connected to the liturgy. These would typically be placed in the Psalter before the text of the psalms themselves and the common themes might be the Fall, the Baptism of the Lord, the Crucifixion, the Risen Christ, and then depictions of David as the embodiment of the book of Psalms.


 There might be also depictions of the line of genealogy, with the main line running from Jesse through Our Lady through to Christ, with the intermediary descendants represented on the branches, such as this one from the Lambeth Psalter.


Calendar Pages

Again, these are in the first section of the Psalter and as the name suggests, would be a single page devoted to a month and listing the feasts. Illuminations would be the sign of the zodiac for that month and common nonliturgical activities - labors of the month - associated with it, such as planting or harvesting crops. Here is August, complete with a depiction of Virgo, from the Psalter of Eleanor of Aquitaine.


Historiated Initials and Bookmark Pages

Historiated initial is the ornate combination of lettering and art for the first letter of the psalm. These would not typically be done for all the psalms but were elaborate ways to mark designated points in the Psalter. These bookmarks were needed as reference points because although the psalms might be numbered, the pages were not. Typically the psalter would be divided up into 10 sections. Here is the Eleanor of Aquitaine Psalter's Psalm One, Beatus vir, Blessed is the man.


In Books of Hours, Images to Mark the Beginning of each Office

Again, the purpose of these was as much to mark the beginning of each Office so that you could find it in the book that contained no index and page numbers. These might be general themes of salvation history or the psalms, or a series that presents a narrative theme So for example, in the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the life of the Virgin would be depicted. Here is the page for Matins, which is the Annunciation. It is in The Belles Heures of Jean of France, Duke of Berry from 15th century France.


Incidental illustration

Through the Psalter, the artist might add illustrative details. Sometimes one gets the impression that this is as much to fill a gap in the text so that there isn't a lot of white space on the page. Here is Moses as an incidental illustration for one of the traditional Canticles of the Divine Office, the Canticle of Moses, Deuteronomy 32. The horns, incidentally, are, as I understand it, a representation of the mistranslation by St Jerome in the Vulgate and ought to be rays of the reflected light of God shining from him.

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