Sunday, February 3, 2019

Psalm 138: Based on Characters Created By

This reflection is more art reflection than text reflection. If you want more on Isaiah 6 or Luke 5, the links are below. This reflection will instead be looking at how one artist interpreted a particular psalm and then, between 5 and 500 years later, how another artist interpreted the art of the earlier artist. The subject is Psalm 138, though in the Vulgate, some changes in numbering make this Psalm 137.
(Left) Utrecht Psalter, folio 77v. c. 820-845. Utrecht, Holland: University Library, Universiteit Utrecht. (Right) Harley MS 603, folio 70v. c. 1000-1500. London: British Library. For quickest access to folio 70v of Harley MS 603, use the pull down menu at the top right of the image window.
The earlier text is the Utrecht Psalter, was created c. 820-845 in Reims, France. In the 11th and 12th centuries, the manuscript was in Canterbury, England, as part of the collection of Robert Cotton. Probably during that time, the manuscript was copied. That copy is identified as Harley MS 603 in the British Library.

The two manuscripts do have some stylistic similarities, but the differences are obvious enough that we know the scribe(s)/illustrator(s) of Harley 603 were not compelled to make a slavish copy. The later illustrations may have been based on something in the earlier image, but there are enough differences to be obvious. One of the most obvious is the fact that in Harley no one is "bowing down toward [God's] holy temple" as verse 2 says in the NRSV translation. The translation of verse 2 offered on the Utrecht University website says "I will worship towards thy holy temple." Was the translation chosen recently to match the illustration? Why would artists - one more than a thousand years ago - make the choice to not show "bowing down"?

The notes for the Utrecht Psalter say the illustrations are visual representations of the text, phrase by phrase. The collection page linked in the photo caption allows you to click on a portion of the Utrecht illustration and identify the portion of the psalm being illustrated.
Though the arrangement of images is completely different, some of the elements are similar: the long basilica-shaped "temple," groups of people. But there are differences as well. In the notes for Harley, the description for Psalm 137: People praising the Lord (left) and the Psalmist standing before a temple; (lower image) people in captivity hold up their hands (left) and a king is given gifts by the hand of the Lord (right). What is missing as you read the text? Do you agree with the identifications of the images?

The center bottom image shows a seated figure holding a book(?)
(that may be in the upper register of the Utrecht image) and what seems to be a clump of vegetation: flowers, stems, leaves. Do you see reference to that in the text? Or is this just the artist filling space on the page with images of God's creation?

The two images can help us (maybe even force us) to define how we hear the psalm. Which do you think captures the text, the mood, the feeling of the Psalm?

This week on Art&Faith Matters on Facebook, another manuscript of this psalm.
For thoughts on Isaiah 6:1-18, click here.
For thoughts on Luke 5:1-11, click here.

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