Depicting Devotion: Illuminated Books of Hours from the Middle Ages

Washington University Libraries, Department of Special Collections, St. Louis, Winter 2001-2001

Table of Contents
Books of Hours
I Calendar
II Gospel Lessons
III Hours of the Virgin
IV Hours of the Cross
V Additional Prayers to the Virgin
VI Hours of the Holy Spirit
VII Penitential Psalms
VIII Office of the Dead
IX Accessory Texts
X Peacocks and Eggs

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Section VII: Penitential Psalms

David in penitence highlights another aspect of the Psalms. According to tradition, David composed these Psalms after the Prophet Nathan exposed to him the gravity of his transgression with Bathsheba. King David beheld Bathsheba as she was bathing and he was filled with lust. After committing adultery with her, David had her husband killed in order to cover his wrong-doing (see II Kings [II Samuel] 11-12). Psalm 51 conveys David's penitence for these sins. Illuminations either show David as he beholds Bathsheba bathing, or they depict him in penitence after the act. The illuminations set the penitential tone for the text that follows.

The Penitential Psalms are, according to the numeration of the Vulgate Latin Bible, Psalms 6, 31, 37, 50, 101, 129, & 142. Cassiodorus, a sixth-century monk, first named these the “Penitential” Psalms. In Books of Hours from the 13th and 14th centuries, an illumination of “Christ as Judge” or “Christ as King of Heaven” introduced the Seven Penitential Psalms. By the 15th century, David in penitence or scenes from David's life introduces the psalms. The illumination of Christ as Judge hearkens back to the early use of these Psalms in the Church as prayers of repentance and lamentation.

An interior depiction of David MS 6
Paris ca. 1450
possibly the work of a follower of the Bedford Master
20 cm by 13 cm, BX2080/R72/ca. 1450

Penitential Psalms
An interior depiction of David, who appears with a devotional book and his harp.

Scene from David's life MS 2
Northern France (probably Paris), ca. 1420
strong resemblance to the work of the Boucicaut Master, though not his work;
probably produced by a follower or in the workshop of a follower
19.6 cm. by 13.5 cm., BX2080/L77/early 15th C.

Penitential Psalms
David in the wilderness with his harp.

Scenes from David's life MS 8
Probably Parisian, late 15th C., could be ca. 1490s
very standard late 15th C. style, stylistically similar to work of Jean Bourdichon
17.5 cm. by 11.7 cm, BX2080/L75/late 15th C.

Penitential Psalms Scenes from David's life in chronological order: David slays Goliath; David parades with Goliath's head; David crowned as King; David gazes at Bathsheba (for another depiction of this scene, see the Manuscript case).

Penitential Psalms MS 3
Flemish, ca. 1460
resembles the work of Guillaume Vrelant (Bruges) and the Master of the Gold Scrolls
17.36 cm. by 12 cm., NX2080/R51/15th C.

Penitential Psalms
Christ as Judge returns for the Last Judgment. He stands on an orb, representing his dominion over the world. The scene represents the return of Christ to judge both the living and the dead. Heavenly trumpets announce the event and bodies emerge from their tombs.

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