Byzantine (Constantinople), second half of 10th century
Tempera and gold leaf on vellum; 449 folios; 37 x 26.5 cm
This has become the most famous illustrated codex in Byzantine art and is featured in almost all books on the subject. A luxurious imperial psalter, associated with the emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos (r. 945-59), it is unique among the seventy-five illuminated Byzantine psalters extant. No other example combines its large size, high quality of script and text decoration, and magnificent full-page illustrations, fourteen in all. Seven are bound one after the other as a self-contained set preceding the psalter text; these depict events of David's life in chronological order. The remaining seven are con-nected with the text. The scene of David's repentance precedes Psalm 50 (51), the most important of the penitential psalms. The other six illustrations are each placed before an ode or canticle, commonly found at the end of a Byzantine psalter.
These miniatures are famous for their apparent classicism in figural style, painting technique, and coloration. Among the classicizing features are personifications that have been incorporated in the compositions. In the scene of Moses receiving the tablets from God on Mount Sinai (fol. 422v), for example, which refers to the Canticle of Moses in Deuteronomy, a seminude figure seen from the back is seated on a rock in the left fore-ground. Identified as Mount Sinai by the inscription, he holds a dead tree stump, which, together with his nakedness, signifies the barren wasteland of the setting. In the upper-left corner Moses stretches upward to the hand of God to reach for the tablets. At the summit of the mountain the Burning Bush is visible. Below, in the center, a group of Israelites engaged in conversation awaits Moses' return. To the right, on an almost separate plane, Moses is shown again, this time attentively listening to God's instructions on how to build the temple that will house the Tablets of the Law. His finger-to-chin gesture indicates that he is thinking.
In addition to personifications of time and place that help the viewer to identify the event depicted, the psalter illustrations contain personifications representing abstract concepts and virtues such as clemency, penance, and wisdom. These figures are usually interpreted as the clearest sign of a revived interest in the antique. For this reason the Paris Psalter as a whole has served as one of the key documents supporting the notion of a Macedonian renaissance during the tenth century. The large full-page illustrations have also given rise to the theory of an "aristocratic" system of psalter illumination in Byzantium. It was thought otherwise incomprehensible that a repertoire of pagan forms and subjects could have a place within a manuscript of Christian liturgical or private devotion.
David and the events of his life, however, were used in the Middle Ages in two primary ways: religious (David as a type of Christ) and imperial or secular (David as the model for an emperor or king). David's victory over Goliath, for example, could be seen as an antetype of Christ's victory over Satan or as a reference to the emperor's defeat of an enemy. In the Paris Psalter the secular significance of the personifications clearly outweighs the liturgical and devotional aspect of the manuscript. The illustrations focus on presenting the image of the ideal ruler in the eyes of God and his people according to contemporary, that is, tenth-century, notions of imperial ideology. In sequence they follow closely the structure of imperial enkomia in praise of a ruler, and specifically of such tenth-century texts as the Vita Basilii, an enkomion on the life of Basil I (r. 867-86), founder of the Macedonian dynasty.
The Paris Psalter has become an important work in the history of Byzantine art mainly because of its splendid full-page illustrations and its unusually classical-looking compositions. It can now be better understood as the exceptional work of art that it is, not only because of its aesthetic value but also because of the innovative and sophisticated way in which it incorporated political ideas in traditional subject matter and imagery.
The psalter was influential in its own time and during the centuries that followed. A number of its compositions introduced new ways of illustrating psalters and other manuscripts in Byzantium. The popularity of the Paris Psalter illustrations was lasting. We know that as late as the thirteenth century some of them were still used as models for the creation of luxury manuscripts.