Museum Home Past Exhibitions Temptation and Salvation: The Psalms of King David

June 9–August 16, 2009 at the Getty Center

Initial E: David Lifting up His Soul to God / dei Russi
Initial E: David Lifting up His Soul to God (detail), Franco dei Russi, about 1455–1460/1463

The Psalms and their illustrations played a central role in medieval Christianity. Originally composed in Hebrew and incorporated into both the Hebrew and Christian bibles, the 150 "songs of praise" include laments as well as prayers of thanks and exaltation.

In the Middle Ages, King David was believed to be the author of the Psalms. Their words and illustrations were often linked in the medieval imagination to the story of David's journey of redemption from shepherd and sinner to divinely chosen king. The Psalms inspired medieval Christians to follow in his footsteps toward salvation.

David and Goliath / Dresden Prayer Book, illuminator; or workshop of Master of the Dresden Prayer Book
David and Goliath, M of Dresden Prayer Book or workshop, about 1480–1485?

The Life of King David

Whether shown as a shepherd, a harpist, or a king, David is probably the most common figure to appear in illustrations for the Psalms. The range of illustrations in these manuscripts shows him at various stages of his spiritual transformation. They also show his life of human drama; a rags-to-riches story peppered with war, adultery, and betrayal.

This miniature depicts David's famous victory over Goliath. According to the Bible, Goliath was among the most feared soldiers in the Philistine army. David, a shepherd boy, was the only Israelite who dared face him. As Goliath towers above, David is poised to kill him using the sling and stone in his right hand.

Initial D: David Pointing to His Mouth /  Master of the Ingeborg Psalter
Initial D: David Pointing to His Mouth (detail), Master of the Ingeborg Psalter, after 1205

The Psalms Illuminated

Whether sung, spoken, or silently read, the Psalms and their imagery were central to medieval Christian worship. The Psalms formed part of the canonical hours, or the eight prayer services recited daily by monks and nuns.

As private devotional books grew more popular, eventually the Psalms became part of lay worship, too. The Psalms provided the basis for chants sung during the Mass and were included in prayers recited at funerals.

A demon tugs on David's cloak, tempting him to sin with his tongue, as warned against in the first line of the psalm: "I said I will heed my ways that I not sin with my tongue." The illuminator masterfully rendered David's jaw, clenched against the demon's temptation. An angel rushes in from the clouds and points to David's eye, which may be a reference to his lustful spying on Bathsheba.

Initial D: A Monk with His Finger to his Lips / Unknown
Initial D: A Monk with His Finger to His Lips (detail), Italian, about 1420

Sin and Penitence

Medieval illustrations of David's life went beyond depictions of his rise from a humble shepherd and musician to the chosen king. Many illuminations that feature David also focus on his spiritual journey.

Revered as a man and role model for Christians, David was nevertheless flawed. He succumbed to temptation more than once, and each time he paid a terrible price. Rather than avoid the subject of David's falls from grace, Psalm illustrations frequently draw attention to his imperfections. These images suggest that despite David's sins, his penitence could serve as a model for salvation.