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The Penitential Psalms in Books of Hours

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The seven Penitential Psalms are a standard part of the liturgical material incorporated into Books of Hours, along with the Little Office of the Virgin Mary, the Office of the Dead, and the Litany of the Saints. Of course many Books of Hours are filled with beautiful illustrations, and as follow-up to last week’s post about the Penitential Psalms in the liturgy of Lent, here is a selection of some of the commonly chosen images tat go with them.

From the Maastricht Hours, 14th century (Stowe ms. 17, British Library): Mary Magdalene, the penitent Saint par excellence, meets the risen Christ in the Garden; a woman kneels before her confessor, as the hand of God absolves her from above. The bishop on the right is probably meant to signify that the priest can absolve sins only on the bishop’s authority.

The Maastricht Hours are famous for their repertoire of strange and whimsical marginal images, most of which have no relationship to the text and are not religious in character. Here is an exception, a black bird accompanying the words of the Psalm 101, “I am like a night raven in the house.”

Book of Hours according to the Use of Ghent, 14th century. (Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal, 565, Bibliothèque nationale de France). Christ in Judgment at the end of the world, with the dead rsing from the earth, and a figure representing the mouth of Hell.

Book of Hours according to the Use of Paris, late 14th – early 15th century. (Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des Manuscrits, Latin 18014) The Trinity in Majesty, with the symbols of the Four Evanglists. Below, David, the author of the Psalms, in combat with Goliath, a popular subject with the Penitential Psalms.

The Hours of Brière de Surgy, 14th century (Bibliotheque Municipale de la Ville de Laon, ms. 243q) King David as an elderly man in prayer.

The Hours of Chrétienne de France, 1470-75 (Use of Rouen, Latin and French; Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal, Ms-562 réserve, BnF). The episode of the census of Israel and the plague which it provokes (2 Kings 24). King David kneels before the prophet Gad and King David, while the Angel of the Lord above, whose sword symbolizes the plague.

Hours of René of Anjou, King of Sicily 15th century. (Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des manuscrits, Latin 1156 A) The Trinity in Majesty.

The Hours of Louis of Laval, late 15th century. (Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des manuscrits, Latin 920) This is one of the most fully illustrated Books of Hours ever produced; every single page has a Biblical scene on it. Here is the first one at the beginning of the Penitential Psalms, David fighting Goliath.

The later 15th century sees the introduction of a new subject matter for this part of a Book of Hours, David spying on Bathsheba (2 Kings 11), the episode which is referred to in the title of the most famous of the Penitential Psalms, and the most prominent in the liturgy, the Miserere (Psalm 50.)

Book of Hours of King Henri II, 16th century, (Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des manuscrits, Latin 1429). Job reproved by his wife.

Two more images of the Bathsheba story, first from a Book of Hours according to the Use of Rome, provenance unknown, 1524 (Library of Congress, Rosenwald ms. 10).

Second from the Book of Hours of Anne of Austria, 16th century (Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des manuscrits, NAL 3090).


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