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Art History. David Composing the Psalms Essay

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Updated: Oct 25th, 2021


No civilization dies without leaving some heritage behind it; no civilizations of any advanced degree are born without antecedents. To consider in turn each of the predecessors of Byzantine culture which did or could affect it, and to give a general outline of their nature and condition, is the aim of this chapter. The reader will thus conceive some idea of the nature of the various sources which exercised an effect on Byzantine art, both in the earliest days, and later, when the distinguishing character of Byzantine art had already been arrived at. Yet however important these elements may be–and of recent years authorities have been much concerned with stressing the role of one at the cost of that of another–it must always be borne in mind that the chief glory of creating a style or producing an object must be assigned to the culture to which it actually belongs. Thus a Byzantine ivory may be Hellenistic or it may be Eastern in character; it may exemplify the idealistic spirit of Greek art; it may be conceived purely in a formalist or realist eastern manner; but there is beyond this a definite quality which makes it essentially Byzantine. It is this quality which is of chief importance to the student of the history of art, but his appreciation must remain incomplete and his understanding limited unless he have some knowledge of what has gone before.

The cultures that concern us in this respect may best be considered in turn, according to region. They fall into seven principal groups: Greece and the Hellenistic world; Asia Minor; Rome and Italy; Syria and the Semitic East; northern Mesopotamia; southern Persia ( Iran) and lower Mesopotamia ( Iraq), and finally northern Persia, called by Strzygowski the Altai-Iran region.

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The dissemination of Greek culture in the East by the conquests of Alexander in a later section. Here we are concerned with the large Greek cities of the Mediterranean coast-lands in Asia Minor, in northern Syria, and in Egypt, such as Ephesus, Pergamon, Priene, Miletus, Antioch, and Alexandria. In these cities Greek culture had been long established, and it was with many of them that the more popular Greek myths and legends were concerned. Troy and Pergamon may be mentioned as examples. These cities were, as we have attempted to show in the chapter on geography, linked more closely with Greece by means of the sea than with their own hinterlands, from which they were separated by mountain barriers or political antipathies. Here, during the centuries immediately preceding the birth of Christ, the pure Greek culture of the city-states of the mainland was maintained, and as Greece itself declined and gradually assumed the role of a conserver rather than a creator, so these cities progressed, keeping up a more or less vital culture of their own. As time went on this culture tended to become somewhat less pure, being closely affected. by eastern elements, but the Greek ideal was definitely maintained till a late date. From about the end of the third century B.C. these cities formed a part of the Roman Empire, but they were never more than superficially affected by Roman culture and Roman art.1 From them, and more especially from Antioch and Alexandria, the Hellenic tradition was conveyed to Byzantine civilization, though the old Greek town of Byzantium, whose site was chosen for Constantinople, had also some contribution to make.

The coasts and the highlands of Anatolia form two distinct regions. But in art it seems that we must go farther and distinguish between the Hellenistic culture of the great cities and a local culture akin to that of the highlands, which existed also in the country regions of the coast-land. This native culture was founded upon long antecedents, established in the land as far as we can tell even before the days of the Hittites. We know little of this early Anatolian art, and for our purposes it suffices to realize that certain particular animal motives, more especially the lion and the eagle, were popular in the region from Hittite times onwards, and that in the Hellenistic period we find their reproduction continuing in a manner which is not to be reconciled with Hellenistic culture. We can trace these motives and this manner in Byzantine art, more especially in sculpture, both in Constantinople and in Greece, and we see these very same animals prominent again in the Seljuk art of Anatolia of the twelfth century. This sudden reappearance of old motives is by no means fortuitous: it represents rather the revival of an age-old tradition in Asia Minor, and there can be little doubt but that this tradition also had its influence on the Byzantine art of the intervening.

Rome, like the Hellenistic cities, founded her culture to a great extent on that of Greece, but by the beginning of the Christian era it had taken on a definitely individual form owing to local influence. Yet, though Rome was the capital of the world, she did not during her prosperity impose her art on any but her more immediate dependencies and creations, such as Pompeii. When Constantine transferred his capital to the shores of the Marmora in 330, he took with him all the panoply of an imperial court. Buildings were constructed in the Roman manner, to answer Roman demands; statues which were purely Roman in appearance were erected; Roman law, the Latin language, and indeed every aspect of Roman culture was imposed. The city was the new Rome in all its superficial aspects. Two strong forces, however, opposed this imposition of Roman culture on Constantinople, namely geography and race. Thus by the sixth century we find that the Greek tongue had replaced Latin in general usage, and by the ninth century the latter had been entirely forgotten. In art a similar change took place and purely Roman forms, such as the imperial portrait bust or the conception of Christ as a youthful beardless figure, were abandoned in the developed Byzantine manner.

David composing the Psalms is an illumination from the famous Paris Psalter (Bib. Nat. Gr. 139). A number of classical elements survive, such as the Muse behind David or the personification of the mountain in the foreground. But the art does not all show this tendency towards abstraction. There was, it would seem, a violent counter-wave at the end of Iconoclasm and much that was done in post-Iconoclast times represents a Renaissance in the literal sense of the term an almost direct copying of what had gone before. The miniatures of the famous Paris Psalter in the Bibliothèque Nationale (Gr. 139), were, for instance, not only copied from an earlier manuscript as was inevitable when the copyist’s duty was to reproduce as exactly as possible the text and the appearance of the prototype but also sought to

The same classical style characterizes some, but by no means all, of the miniatures in another fine manuscript of this age, the Homilies of St Gregory Nazianzus in the Bibliothèque Nationale (Gr. 510).

Five hands can be distinguished in these illustrations; one of them was a master of great ability, with a very fine feeling for colour, and a good sense of movement; he favoured perspective backgrounds and loved personifications. He was responsible, amongst others, for the scenes showing David composing the Psalms (Byzantine Art, pl. 30) and the Prophecy of Isaiah ( Pl. 18 ). In the former, the landscape setting, the picturesque treatment of the animals, still reminiscent of an Orpheus scene, and the personification of Melodia behind David all show the closeness with which an Alexandrine model must have been followed. In the latter, Isaiah stands between Night and Dawn against a very effective background of foliage. Night, as a tall female figure of Hellenistic type with a veil over her head, is especially impressive. So Hellenistic are the illustrations that Morey suggests that an Alexandrine roll was the ultimate model; the actual illustrations were, however, done in Constantinople. He argues for a date before Iconoclasm, though he thinks that this manuscript may have been done rather later than the Rotulus. But in reaching this conclusion he does not take into full account the very close similarity between the illustrations of the Paris Psalter and some in another manuscript in the Bibliothèque Nationale (Gr. 510), the Homilies of Gregory Nazianzus, which was done for Basil I and is thus firmly dated to between 880 and 886.

Moreover, the style of these miniatures, in brilliant and very effective colours, is what Wolfflin would have called “painterly”, whereas that of the Joshua Roll is essentially “linear” 2; its illustrations are in fact no more than tinted drawings, so that the two are really hardly comparable at all. And again, if the twelfth century Octateuchs can reproduce early Alexandrine models as faithfully as they do, surely the painter of the Paris Psalter could reproduce them in the ninth century? A dating in the ninth or early tenth century is also supported by the similarity of the Psalter miniatures to those of a manuscript in the Vatican (Reg. Gr. 1) which was done for the Patrician Leo in the second quarter of the tenth century.

The Tiberius Psalter is just such a volume. In addition to the grand cycle of prefatory miniatures which we considered in the previous section, it also contains full-page pictures within the body of its text. Images of David composing the Psalms accompanied by his musicians, an ecclesiastic, Christ triumphant trampling on the lion and the dragon, and the Trinity preface Psalms 1, 51, 101, and 109 respectively. 108 Similarly, whilst pictures of the heavenly choirs are grouped together at the beginning of the Benedictional of St Ethelwold, other full-page miniatures punctuate its text, introducing the blessings for major feasts. The pictures illustrate the events of the occasion or present the person or life of the saint being celebrated: an image of Christ’s Ascension, for example, prefixes the blessings for Ascension Day, while an iconic representation of St Benedict enthroned prefaces the blessings for the feast of that saint ( Pl. 30 ). Certain individual images and cycles of pictures function in a similar way. The scenes from the life of Christ that preface the Tiberius Psalter (Pl. 13b), for instance, remind the reader visually from the outset to consider the Psalms in terms of David, Christ, and the triumph of Christianity. Again the imagery is typological, but this time it is more forcibly so because of the visual juxtaposition of Christ and his prototype, David. Interpreting the Psalms Christologically was a well-established approach, which is, incidentally, alluded to in one of the private prayers that follow the pictures and precede the text in the Tiberius Psalter. The use of visual imagery to foster the reader’s receptiveness to this dimension of the text was well established by the ninth century at the latest, as the multiple depictions of Christ in the Carolingian Utrecht and Stuttgart Psalters, not to mention the Byzantine Khludov Psalter, attest.

The physical position of imagery also has a direct bearing on its effect on the beholder. In the Tiberius and Harley 2904 Psalters, where the relevant pictures precede the text, and in other copies, such as the ‘Athelstan’ and Cambridge Psalters where imagery marks a sectional division, the reader is encouraged to explore the psalms in general for their allusions to Christ or David.


Although stylized and conventionalized, all three previous types of pictorial settings still related to some extent to aspects of the visible world. By contrast, the final class of setting–which I have termed diagrammatic, reflecting its nature–has little or no relation to it. Diagrammatic settings may be seen in the two Winchester Benedictionals which have pictorial matter, in the Cambridge, Tiberius, and ‘Athelstan’ Psalters, the New Minster Liber Uitae ( Pl. 7b ) and Prayer Book, the Grimbald Gospels (Pl. 18), and at the start of the two-volume Bible, British Library, MS Royal 1 E. vii-viii. 172 The first two examples, the depictions of Pentecost in the two benedictionals, owe their unusual semicircular form to an iconographic tradition which seems to have originated as a translation into twodimensional terms of the appearance of imagery arranged around a dome. The next two are images of David composing the Psalms. Here the picture area was partially compartmentalized in order to accommodate in a non-spatial way the two musicians who could not comfortably fit beside the King.

The setting was something that subsequently grew around, or in certain cases out of, the figures. Instead of conceiving a ground-plane or a ground-line and placing figures on it, the Anglo-Saxon artist began by placing his figures where he wanted them on the page and then (sometimes) attached a line to their feet. That this was indeed his approach is revealed most clearly in the Tiberius Psalter and Judith of Flanders’ Gospel Book, M 709. Almost all the figures in the prefatory cycle to the Tiberius Psalter have static poses with their feet about the same distance above the frame. A gently undulating ground-line is attached to their feet. The exception is St Michael who, striding into action against the Devil, is depicted with his (rather emaciated) left leg raised ( Pl. 17b ). Significantly the artist also raised the ground-line at this point–and at this point only–turning it into a little hillock so that it still meets his foot. Needless to say this is not a general feature of images of this battling saint. St John in the frontispiece to the gospel book is similarly shown with one foot raised and his ground-line has also ‘reared up’ after it in the same way. Returning to the Psalter, the same point is also evident in the picture of David composing the Psalms. David on his throne and the two musicians who flank him have all ‘grown’ their own, uncorrelated ground-lines immediately below them. Schematic architecture ‘grew’ around figures in much the same way. The figure subject was of primary importance; the setting was an adjunct to it.

In most cases the decorators of late Anglo-Saxon books were correct in their perception of the figures as the essence of the iconography and the particular setting as relatively unimportant. The true subject-matter, the spiritual message, transcended time and place. This belief was an important aspect of the process of changing from a semi-recessive to a two-dimensional axis of composition that has been the subject of this chapter a change which, as has been stressed, should be viewed as a positive realignment rather than simply as the misunderstanding of illusionism.


The diminishing of the setting of figural compositions, and indeed the compositional realignment as a whole, was a correlative of the Anglo-Saxon’s wish to have freedom and space to explore the decorative potential of each page, something which the best artists did with truly magnificent results. At the same time it could give figural art a transcendental quality that admirably conveyed its eternal significance.


Manuscript; The Paris Psalter. 141/8 x 101/4 (36 x 26). Tenth century. David composing the Psalms. Bibliothèque Nationale (Gr. 139), Paris. Photo: Max Hirmer.

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