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Temptation and Salvation: The Psalms of King David

At the J. Paul Getty Museum, Getty Center June 9 - August 16, 2009

March 10, 2009

LOS ANGELESWhether sung, spoken, or silently read, the Psalms and their illuminations played a central role in medieval Christianity.  On view at the J. Paul Getty Museum, June 9 – August 16, 2009, Temptation and Salvation: The Psalms of King David features splendidly illuminated manuscripts and leaves from the Museum’s collection that reveal the importance of the Psalms in medieval devotion.

The 150 Psalms of the Bible, believed to be the work of King David, were essential to Christian religious life throughout the Middle Ages, and their elusive poetry attracted both written interpretation and painted decoration. Originally composed in Hebrew and incorporated into both the Hebrew and later the Christian Bible, the 150 “songs of praise” include laments as well as prayers of thanks and praise. Their wide range of uses is reflected in the multitude of manuscripts in which they are found and in the variety of images that accompany them.

“This exhibition illustrates the various ways that medieval artists illustrated the Psalms,” says Elizabeth Morrison, curator of manuscripts.  “At times they concentrated on the literal meaning of single verses, and at other times addressed broader themes, such as the role of the Psalms in preparing the Christian faithful for the Last Judgment.”

King David is the most common figure to appear in Psalm illustrations.  The story of David was well known in the Middle Ages and he was frequently depicted in illustrations as a humble shepherd and musician who became a divinely chosen king.  Included in the exhibition is a miniature (image shown on the left) of David’s famous victory over Goliath.  David is shown as a tiny figure compared to Goliath to inspire a sense of the enormity of David’s task. 

Medieval illustrations of David’s life went beyond his rags-to-riches story. Many illustrations focus on David’s spiritual transformation in order to show that, despite David’s sins, his penitence could serve as a model for salvation.  David became an example for medieval Christians, and the words and accompanying images of his Psalms inspired readers to follow in his footsteps toward salvation.  This exhibition includes an illustration from a psalter manuscript (image shown on the first page) that depicts an angel guarding David from above and a demon tugging on his robe from below.  This image embodies David’s inner struggle between good and evil.

“The images of King David shown in this exhibition demonstrate the different ways David’s life and spiritual journey were depicted in Psalm illustrations,” adds Elizabeth Morrison.  “Essentially they served as examples to be imitated by faithful Christians.”

Temptation and Salvation: The Psalms of King David is co-curated by Mary Flannery, University of London, and Elizabeth Morrison, curator of manuscripts at the J. Paul Getty Museum.

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Desiree Zenowich
Getty Communications

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