The Great Canterbury Psalter

The Great Canterbury Psalter f. 108v, psalm 63  Hear, O God, my prayer when I make supplication


f. 108v, psalm 63  Hear, O God, my prayer when I make supplication

The first of the two bands on this folio abides by the metaphorical tone characteristic of the text of the Psalter which has already been reflected indirectly in other, quite literal, Catalan pictures. A person or monk at prayer, in front of an altar dignified by a gold cross, reproduces the motif of the person at prayer found in some other initials in this part of the codex too (v. 2, Exaudi Deus orationem meam... // Hear O God, my prayer). However, this individual is now threatened by a pair of archer demons, possibly a more recent creation since they are wingless, each shown firing an arrow at the innocent person (v. 4, Quia exacuerunt ut gladium linguas suas: intenderunt arcum rem amaram // For they have whetted their tongues like a sword; they have bent their bow a bitter thing; v. 5, Ut sagittent in occultis immaculatum // To shoot in secret the undefiled), who admits that he fears the demon and his constant persecution (S. E. Hyeronimus, Breviarium..., 1062). However, the wounds that the treacherous, black devils may cause are compared by the psalmist to children’s arrows (v. 8, ...Sagittae parvulorum factae sunt plagae eorum // And God shall be exalted. The arrows of children are their wounds) being shot heavenwards in the miniature to the sound made by two older devils with remarkably large ears on the far right of the elongated scene. The arrows fly back to the archers who shot them and seem to hit their foreheads (v. 9, Et infirmatae sunt contra eos linguae eorum // And their tongues against them are made weak), employing once again the parallel between tongues and bows mentioned in verse four. The isolated motif recalls the tale of the hunter on Mount Gargano who shot at St Michael the Arcangel’s calf and was wounded by his own arrow.

The transcription of the text is interrupted in the bottom register, continuing with the Christological exemplification or explanation. Christ’s prayer in the Garden of Olives is chosen as a referent of David’s curses when the king asks God to free his eternal enemies. The scene in the Garden features two different moments concerning Christ’s preparation for death. The first regards the call of God the Father blessing his Son from the arch of heaven whilst Peter, John and James sleep soundly. The available space enables their bodies to stretch out full length without being contorted or bunched up as often occurs in other paintings. Depicted in the second scene is the descent of the angel transformed into Jesus’ comfort, a paradigm of the innocent, before the death awaiting him, but which also symbolises his acceptance of his father’s will. St Augustine points out that psalm 63 concerns the Passion of Christ (Enarrationes II, pp. 591 ff.), referring to Christ’s prayer in the Garden of Olives, “Pater, si fieri potest, transeat a me calix iste?” and“Verum non quod ego volo, sed quod tu vis, Pater” (Mt 26: 39-42). These are the two scenes into which the image is divided although, because of the angel, it leads to St Luke’s Gospel (“Apparuit autem illi angelus de coelo, confortans eum. Et factus in agonia, prolixius orabat”: Lc 22: 43).

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