In which I encounter the most important Psalter of all time (and learn what a Psalter is)

If ever you get an invitation to do something arcane with someone passionate and knowledgeable, I recommend you go for it.

A long-lost friend came to visit over the weekend. I had let my friendship with Bice go latent. Though we didn’t keep in touch, I adored her and knew that eventually we would rekindle our connection. Felicitously, Bice is an art historian studying medieval northern European art, so for the past couple years she’s been based in Cologne, the opposite corner of Germany from Berlin. We met up in Hildesheim, a little city that my German friends knew nothing about. I got the sort of reaction as if I lived in New York City and announced I was taking a special trip to see Binghamton.

But Hildesheim is a hot spot for those interested in medieval Northern European art, and all the more so this winter when the cathedral museum there is exhibiting the St. Albans Psalter. Bice, with two fellow art historians, made the pilgrimage to this Psalter and invited me to share the experience. With patience and enthusiasm, they broke down the importance of this 11th century book. They had to start at the very beginning, explaining that a Psalter is a book of the psalms, used as an aid to religious contemplation and study. The St. Albans Psalter is very special because it was made for the anchoress of the St. Albans monastery by the Abbott.

This sounds like a racy background to me. The anchoress Christina, basically a mystical hermit lady perceived to have incredible spiritual power, living in a hut adjoining the monastery, has such a close “spiritual” relationship with the Abbott Geoffrey that he decides to commission his monks to make her an elaborate, expensive book.  Geoffrey thoughtfully included in the Psalter the life of a saint, an element not usually added to Psalters, and which saint did he choose? This guy who decided he could serve God better by not touching his beloved wife in this world. But don’t worry, they can afterlive happily ever after in heaven. I envision Geoffrey and Christina sending out save the date cards to all the other saints and angels for their 1000th wedding anniversary.

The Psalter starts with a calendar because it’s very important to know when all the numerous feast days are and to keep track of when people die so you can pray for them on their death days. Practically every day is a feast day, so the especially significant ones are written in red ink, from whence comes the phrase “red letter day.”

After the calendar, this Psalter included a letter from Pope Gregory in the 7th century, writing to somebody in France, reassuring him that God approves of pictures so he could stop destroying images. Pictures help us understand and fully feel the import of ideas. Then comes the story of the abstinent saint, and then the life of Jesus in clever, colorful pictures. I learned that there are tons of episodes in the life of Christ that I never knew about. For example, one picture called “The Harrowing of Hell” shows the Christian answer to the question of what Jesus was doing all day while his body was dying on the cross. He went down to Hell to pull out those who had died before he redeemed  them, starting with Adam and Eve.

I was privy to an art historian moment of overwhelming excitement when Bice pointed out that in all these dozens of incidents in the life of Christ, this Psalter contains no picture of Christ actually on the cross. What a conundrum for art historians! Why would that seminal element be absent? Bice’s hypothesis is that Christina the anchoress had a crucifix of her own, so when she got to that part of the story, she would look up to that physical object affixed to the wall of her hut, further binding her religious contemplation to the concrete world around her. It was decided that Bice should write a paper forwarding this theory.

Finally, we got to the pages containing the psalms themselves, every single one in order. Each psalm starts with a gigantic capital letter, taking up most of the page. The monks filled in the capital letter with a scene envisioning one particular line from the particular psalm, often with hilarious literality. One psalm has some sort of line like: “Lord send me help as soon as you can.” In the big L that starts the psalm, the  monk drew in a picture of a guy being devoured by a snake. His legs are already down the snakes gullet. But his arms reach up, and there’s the Lord reaching down to pull him out.

In short, I had a fantastic time looking at Psalter art and learning about what Christians were thinking about in the 11th century.

That wasn’t the end of our Hildesheim tour. Hildesheim is home to the pinnacle of Ottonian era architecture, the Church of St. Michael’s. Again, I was treated to the VIP tour by the passionate art historians. We saw the painted wooden ceiling depicting “The Tree of Jesse,” a representation of Christ’s ancestors. The church has a huge bronze pillar decorated with a winding upward spiral of relief sculptures showing the life of Christ. And, we visited the crypt, where rests the body of the great Bishop Bernward, the driving force behind the church’s construction in the 1000s. My other guide, Shirin, dedicated pages of her dissertation to Bernward’s tomb, so I got a great précis on the significance of all the decorations and arrangements of the crypt.

After all that, I got to take Bice home with me to Berlin for a sleepover. On Sunday, Aaron, Bice, and I toured the New Museum, home of Nefertiti, and got to experience another art historian moment of excitement. In the New Museum, we saw a casket from the 8th century with a picture of a cross engraved on it. In the center of the cross is a flowery medallion, exactly the same shape as one in a manuscript Bice is studying in her dissertation. Aaron feels jealous that he cannot forward his dissertation arguments while strolling through the art museum.

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2 responses to “In which I encounter the most important Psalter of all time (and learn what a Psalter is)

  1. Pingback: The Anchoress | A First Things Blog

  2. In the Methodist/United Methodist liturgy, the Psalter served (presumably serves still) as a vehicle for responsive reading during the service. We used it only communally , not for private contemplation and study.

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