The Utrecht Psalter Drawings

One of the most telling parts of the Middle Ages was its manuscripts and their illustrations. A little known but glorious example of that is The Utrecht Psalter (of about 830). There are two images I have chosen to show you and the thumbnails are shown below. Click on them and when they come up on your screen, click on them again to see the detail:


The image I am explorig here is from Psalm 43 sometimes known as Awake, Oh Lord! As you can tell, there is a mighty battle raging and The Lord is seen at the very top middle of the page. He is asleep on a bed but is beset with a band of angels who are trying to get Him to wake up and lend His assistance to the righteous side. There is a certain amount of bleed through of the ink on parchment but please take a look at the overall composition and notice the scallop patterning of: the aquaduct-like castle walls, what appears to be the smoke and dust of battle, and tiny horse’s legs rushing about the din of war. The mounted warriors are converging on a walled town and streaming into the portal to defeat the citizens inside who are earnestly gathered and praying on the left as a platoon seemingly lounges about on the right.

Such lively little figures seem to squirm in front of your eyes. The tiny hooves of the horses line up and bound forward on those scallop shaped indicators. Men and horses are slain and lying about in the center bottom of the scene. All of this seems to be swiftly indicated with a few licks of ink. The center of the scene is somewhat void of action compared to the perimeters and perhaps this would be seen as a flaw in the composition today but I think here it is a necessary clear space which keeps it all from being too cluttered.

Take a look at what I think is the most charming part of the image. Please click on the thumbnail on the right (and don’t forget to click it again when it comes up to see an extreme close up of the miniscule scene). This is the nub of the story. The Lord is asleep with His hand under His head in a canopied bed. Six angels rush in on a cloud of scribbles. They are utterly agitated and the entire vibration of their angst is fabulously indicated by that scribble-cloud and their marvelously bent back and erect thumbs on pleading hands. It’s those thumbs, merely a comma or exclamation point of brown ink, which show you all of their nerve and fear are concentrated in their hands and how hard they are demanding the conscious attention of The Almighty. You may not be able to make out their faces, and truly there isn’t any room to do more than a tiny line portrait of each, but the artist has used a more effective way to convey the rushing feel of the moment. I have not seen such a havoc driven scene of concern in all of art. Notice that the artist never forgets the thumbs even if the rest of the angel’s hand is not drawn!

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