The Great Canterbury Psalter

The Great Canterbury Psalter f. 154v, psalm 87  O Lord, the God of my salvation, I have cried in the day and in the night before you


f. 154v, psalm 87  O Lord, the God of my salvation, I have cried in the day and in the night before you

The psalm evokes the most painful moments and the threshold of death (v. 7, Posuerunt me in lacu inferiori: in tenebrosis, et in umbra mortis // They have laid me in the lower pit: in the dark places, and in the shadow of death). The danger of death awaits the psalmist as it did Christ before the Passion. Three of the four scenes that comprise this psalm are directly adjacent to Christ’s Passion but their contents appear in different planes. Only the first lacks these very obvious evangelical contents. It portrays a very old David shifted to the left still playing a psaltery accompanied by bearded musicians with grey hair on a flute and tambor, a portable organ, viola and lutes, in addition to other psalteries. It does not seem to be festive music on this occasion. Everything focuses on the gloomy contents of the psalm, and the tired faces of the musicians, including the king, reflect the weight of the worst moments (v. 4, Quia repleta est malis anima mea: et vita mea inferno appropinquavit // For my soul is filled with evils: and my life hath drawn nigh to hell; St Augustine, Enarrationes III, p. 271). The idea of burial and life amongst the dead in gloomy, deep and abominable places prevails in most of the text which concludes with the psalmist’s questions about a divine answer as yet unanswered. Nor is joy emanated by the six attractive angels with the Arma Christi painted around the cross, including the rope, the crown of thorns, several whips and the spear, the sponge and vinegar, several more whips, a transparent veil and the shroud. The cross is positioned as the main symbol of the Passion, reminiscent of the layout on f. 149, and its great prominence may evoke the cross lifted up by two angels in Giotto’s Final Judgement in the Arena Chapel in Padua.

The sorrowful canticle of David and his people attempts to offset humanity’s guilt to be embodied again in Judas. This is portrayed in the lower register in the Arrest of Christ, preceded by the moment when Judas does his transaction with the princes of the Jews, depicted once again with the mitres worn by Christian bishops (see f. 117). The scene of the sale is unusual because of the considerable space devoted to it and the elements depicted in it, particularly the table behind which three of the most noticeable Jews receive Judas. Upon the table is the bag that contained the coins, also painted on the table, some of which are received by the treacherous apostle. This is a very interesting scene that prefigures later banking transactions. The Jews, often accused of usury, are hence directly involved in the circulation and handling of money, as reflected in the trecentist image. Likewise, the second episode chosen completes the contents of the psalm, which speaks of the betrayal of the Lord who was delivered to his enemy by his own followers (v. 9, Traditus sum, et non egrediebar // I was delivered up, and came not forth). The embrace and kiss of Judas, garbed in green and ochre, take place in the midst of a group of soldiers wearing bluish or metallic helmets. One of them has a shield with a star and crescent moon and carries a torch, accompanied by another; the clusters of vertical staffs commonplace elsewhere being absent. Rather than being forms of lighting, the lit fires seem to have a specific meaning contributed to by elevating them to the episode featuring the angels. The shadow of death now casts itself upon Jesus betrayed by the treacherous apostle, reminding us once again of verse 7. This skilfully focuses the fire on sacrifice and passion as much as on the punishment of the unbelievers. Despite everything, the anecdote of St Peter cutting an ear off a fallen and bleeding Malchus is not forgotten. The lack of interest in the subsequent healing of the wound depicted more clearly in other works is noteworthy. In the Arrest Christ is separated from his followers, as described in the psalm (v. 9, Longe fecisti notos meos a me... // Thou hast put away my acquaintance far from me) and exposed to the possibility of being killed, facilitating the comprehension of the lamentations expressed by David.

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