A show of good, bad Davids Art review: Medieval manuscripts at Walters mixing Old Testament text with New Testament art warrant a second look.

March 14, 1996|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

In medieval illuminated manuscripts, the letter B lends itself especially well to illustration, because its loops provide places for two distinct scenes, above and below.

In the current manuscript show at the Walters, "The Psalms of David in the Middle Ages," an early 14th-century Italian book of psalms opens with an illustrated B introducing the first Psalm. A picture of King David adorns the lower segment, and that's entirely appropriate, since David was thought to have written many of the Psalms.

But what's this in the upper segment Jesus raising his hand in blessing? This is from the Old Testament, written before the birth of Jesus. It would seem to be a gross anachronism.

And so it is, but in the medieval period the Old and New Testaments were often connected in such ways to suggest a continuity. Family trees connected Jesus to David and other Old Testament figures, and passages in the Old Testament were cited as prophecies of the coming of Jesus.

Christian scenes commonly illustrated the psalms, for as this show tells us, the Book of Psalms was "one of the most important texts in the Christian liturgy and was also the preferred prayer book for laymen." In this latest in the Walters' continuing series of small manuscript shows, the Christian world appears everywhere.

A southern German, mid-13th-century psalter is opened to two full-page illustrations. The left page shows the Ascension of Christ, and the right page shows St. Michael slaying the dragon. Another German psalter, made for Duchess Clementia von Zahringen, shows Christ in majesty surrounded by the symbols of the four Evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

A French late-13th century psalter shows two scenes from the early life of Jesus, the Adoration of the Magi and the Presentation in the Temple.

And an Italian renaissance psalter of about 1480-1490 shows a family tree springing from Abraham at the bottom and crowned with a depiction of the Madonna and child.

David, of course, also appears frequently, although the show's introductory text asserts that "there is little evidence for his authorship" of the Psalms. We have David killing Goliath, being anointed by Samuel, getting married, and playing various instruments, including the viol and the bells.

If good David figures here, so does bad David, the one who fell for Bathsheba and later after she sent her husband Uriah off to perish in battle so that Davidcould have her repented. The most extraordinary illumination here, from a French volume of about 1480, illustrates this story. It depicts Bathsheba as an almost nude young woman in a landscape of rich, sensual greens and blues.

As do most of these small-scale shows, this one combines beautiful pictures with instructive information, though the David depictions get a bit repetitious.

One potential danger of didactic shows such as this, with a text on each work, is that people tend to look only at what is pointed out. If you have time, go around a second time and discover things for yourself such as the exquisite, almost voluptuous borders in that Italian renaissance psalter. It may be a religious book, but it was made to seduce the eyes.

Medieval arts

What: "The Psalms of David in the Middle Ages"

Where: The Walters Art Gallery, 600 N. Charles St.

When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays, through May 19

Admission: $4 adults, $3 seniors, free to students and 18 and under

Call: (410) 547-9000

Pub Date: 3/14/96

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