Above: The Harley Psalter, Psalm 4, detail of prancing horses and three wolves. Below: Harley Psalter, Psalm 4 in full. All images in this post by permission of the British Library: © The British Library Board, Harley MS 603, folio 2v.
Wolves, prancing horses and a man leaping from a tomb. The Anglo-Saxon Monk takes it all in his virtuous stride as he marches deeper into the
picture world of the Harley Psalter.
It's been an age since I nurtured your spirit with my blessed game of medieval charades, based upon the Anglo-Saxon Harley Psalter. I have felt your deprivation keenly. So here I make amends by offering you my take on Psalm 4.
For those not familiar with the concept of psalter charades, please see the information box 'What you need to know to play medieval charades', and for heaven's sake get yourselves up to date!
What you need to know to play medieval charades
Let's orient ourselves with the Lord – always a good thing. As you know, the Harley Psalter artist (just like his Utrecht Psalter counterpart) was a bit hit-and-miss with his halos, sometimes putting a cross inside the nimbus, sometimes not. Well, in this case, he's completely forgotten one. But don't let that confuse you. This is the Lord. Take my word for it. Now, who's he waving to?
Yes, the Lord is being his usual attentive self to the lowly among us. Just look at that poor fellow! He's been living inside a tomb for days. No wonder most of his hair has disappeared. And look at him pointing with his right forefinger inside his sarcophagus while raising his other hand in God's direction, as if to say "Do you know how bad it is in here?" In case you think he's being a little too impertinent with the Lord, please remember just how freely God permitted the likes of Abraham to question him (Genesis 18). And how else is our artist to convey the distress the Psalmist is feeling?
While we're looking at this fellow, do you notice anything unusual about him? Anything at all? What do you mean, Not really? Can you not see he has a big head? Well, bigger than the heads of those fellows with the spears (baddies), and those even smaller heads of those two veiled women, not to mention the ridiculously minuscule cranium of the young boy. Now why would that be, do you think? Well, it's obvious really: the Lord has heard the distressed man's prayer and enlarged him, or at least his head. No wonder those bad spear-wielders look so intimidated. Ah, I knew you'd get it in the end.
First, to the left, we have those mean spear-wielders, whom we've met several times already in our previous charades games; and then we have another man and two women (I do hope they're not both his wives), and a pesky little lad tugging at his mum (never trust the desires of youth); and lo and behold, that second woman (centre) is urging them all on even further along the rocky road to Lord knows where (clue, clue).
Then, dead centre, we have a whiplashing fellow in, please note, a devilishly scanty tunic, who appears to be persuading the two horses ahead of him into ever greater acts of elegant prancing. Either that or he's having a go at that fellow beside the horses who, if he's not careful, will topple right over (treacherous path this: clue). And finally along this rocky road to nowhere (CLUE!) we have three wolves looking, well, very wolfish indeed!
You've got it, haven't you? No? Well, what do prancing horses and sneaky wolves represent? Come on, you must know it somewhere inside your soul. Yes, that's it! In my medieval world, the horse can represent vanity and the wolf lying. So these God-forsaking and -forsaken troop of rocky road users seek vanity and lying – in fact, they love vanity and lying.
Wait! Wait!, I hear you cry. You've missed something, oh Anglo-Saxon Monk!
Oh no I haven't! I memorise my Psalms, I'll have you know. And so no, I haven't missed the jars of oil and the barrels of wine, nor the sheaves of corn. What! No corn? He missed the corn; the artist missed the corn! Did the Harley Psalter artist ever read his Psalms? I despair, really, I do.
Now in case you're wondering what oil, wine and corn have to do with the meaning of this Psalm, I will simply say that you should make your own mind up when you read the whole Psalm for yourself, which I've provided for you at the end of the post. (In essence, I haven't the foggiest.)
Well, we should move on, blessed charadees. We do have the final part of Psalm 4 to consider. And it is so uplifting.
That's a fine stone building, rather temple-like, what with it being lofty on a mountain top, and having a grand stone staircase (no access for the disabled, mind you). And then we have a couple of fellows down the side doing a spot of genuflection and extending of palms, or maybe they're just finding the shallow doorways a little tricky to negotiate.
Inside the main doorway we have a fellow that's having a teary moment, by the looks of it, probably doing a bit of repenting, I imagine. Then there's the very upright figure (please note the respectable hem line), standing by a splendid altar that obviously isn't gas controlled. Ah, just thought, maybe it's the smoke from the flames that's making the man in the doorway take his garment to his eyes. Very practical, God-fearing type.
Now let's get down to the spiritual nitty-gritty of this Psalm. What do we have to the left of the altar? I'm sure you've identified the obeisant fellow, cup in hand and leading his favourite sheep or goat to the altar. Yes, I know it has a big tail. Concentrate! The upright fellow uses his hands to guide them to the flames. You know the answer, don't you? Why, yes, the stooping fellow is about to offer up the sacrifice of justice and trust in the Lord. And it looks like he's going to need that trust in the Lord since someone's forgot to bring along the sacrificial knife. I don't see the sheep/goat leaping into the flames unbidden, even if its name is Justice.
Fortunately, the Lord is always close by, and it looks very much like he's prompted one of the spear-wielders to offer his spear as a substitute sacrificial implement. How very thoughtful. He does look rather keen, doesn't he?
1 Unto the end, in verses. A psalm for David.
2 When I called upon him, the God of my justice heard me: when I was in distress, thou hast enlarged me. Have mercy on me: and hear my prayer.
3 O ye sons of men, how long will you be dull of heart? Why do you love vanity, and seek after lying?
4 Know ye also that the Lord hath made his holy one wonderful: the Lord will hear me when I shall cry unto him.
5 Be ye angry, and sin not: the things you say in your hearts, be sorry for them upon your beds.
6 Offer up the sacrifice of justice, and trust in the Lord: many say, Who sheweth us good things?
7 The light of thy countenance, O Lord, is signed upon us: thou hast given gladness in my heart.
8 By the fruit of their corn, their wine, and oil, they are multiplied.
9 In peace in the selfsame I will sleep, and I will rest.
10 For thou, O Lord, singularly hast settled me in hope.