Introduction to the Illuminations: Why Illuminate Psalms?
Debra Band

Why should I, the artist, and you, the reader, invest our time in an illuminated book of a
selection of the Psalms? Before opening these pages, let us explore how a visual
interpretation rendered in parchment, ink, paint and gold can help us better imagine these
verses, help us both reach back to the original inspiration of the Biblical Psalms, and find
contemporary expressions for these awe-inspiring poetic verses. The illuminations herein
present a visual midrash, an interpretation, of the selected psalms, which I hope will give
not only aesthetic pleasure in their shimmering gold and color, but also a means of
recapturing the sense of awe embodied in these verses.

Why do we relate to Psalms? Let us examine how we, living in a world that seeks human
rather than divine intervention to solve our problems, relate to ancient Temple liturgy.
Arnold J. Band’s “Introduction to Psalms: Beyond Literary Devices” discusses the
unquestioning faith inherent in the tradition of the “Psalmist,” the search for the face of
the Divine. Today we search for human solutions and cures to countless problems, but we
still often look for assurance that the “strong hand and outstretched arm” will pull us to
safety. And so, although in a process accomplished by the second century of the
Common Era Judaism had transformed Temple ritual into a portable world of prayer,
learning and law, and since the days of the Church Fathers Christianity has found
“Jerusalem” in the human heart, rather than in a single geographic location, we still place
the 150 Psalms at the heart of our religious rituals and private prayer.

Abraham Joshua Heschel examined the meaning of awe expressed in the Psalms and
throughout the Hebrew Bible:

Awe enables us to perceive in the world intimations of the divine, to sense
in small things the beginning of infinite significance, to sense the ultimate
in the common and the simple; to feel in the rush of the passing the
stillness of the eternal.

However profoundly the Psalms plumb the tie between humanity and the Divine,
however they convey awe of the divine presence in the human world, one might suspect
that when we encounter these poems in their regular ritual context, their emotion and
profundity are often muffled by habit. In traditional Jewish homes, for instance, Psalm
126 is sung immediately before the Grace after Meals on Sabbath and festivals, but how
often do we pause from our enjoyment of the presence of family and friends at our tables
to focus on the dream of returning to Zion? In Sabbath morning synagogue services, the
Torah scrolls are returned to the Ark to the rhythmic singing of Psalm 29, but who of us
really imagines earthquakes, storms and lightening-split trees? When do we pay attention
to the awe embodied in those lines? We recite Tehillimon behalf of the ill, entreating the
Lord to heal and save, yet how often do we take the time and emotional energy to probe
the essence of the literal words and contemplate why we invoke those particular poems to
pray for healing?

This book offers an opportunity to consider the Psalms more deliberately and to realize
the strengthening power of their words by offering the verses in the context of an
illuminated book. In Arnold Band’s introduction to the Psalms as a literary form we have
already probed their lasting appeal. Now, let us explore what a visual interpretation adds
to our appreciation of these powerful poems. In particular, what does an illuminated
manuscript offer that other visual presentations do not?

At the simplest level, pictures catch our eye, encouraging us to stop for a moment and
consider the image and the words that inspire it. Once we slow down to consider the text
and painting, however, the choice of the visual imagery accompanying the text invites a
reverie of thoughts related to the literal text of the psalm. The images chosen for the
illuminations of each psalm taken together create a visual midrash, an interpretation
exploring the import of that poem in our own lives, in our own world. The reader, I hope,
will be drawn to consider the imagery in the illuminations, to contemplate and compare its
message to his or her own life. Thus, while scholars have described Psalms as an inner
dialogue between Psalmist and Almighty, in looking at the illuminations of these unique
poems, we are encouraged to participate in a three-way conversation between Psalmist,
God, and ourselves.

Through this inner conversation we articulate our emotional or spiritual challenges, we
may meditate upon our own relationship with the Divine and, if we accept the availability
of the Almighty, we may confront the awe of the Divine, we may reach a state of
confidence that we are not alone in resolving our challenges. For instance, in a world of
often-nihilistic popular culture, where the challenges of raising a healthy family may seem
overwhelming, Psalm 128 celebrates the serenity and satisfaction — in Jewish tradition,
nahas – of a flourishing family. In the illuminations of that psalm, the eagles nesting in
the olive tree may remind the viewer of biblical and midrashic ideas that God offers a
model of the perfect parent, protecting the Chosen People as an eagle protects its young.
While this allusion draws upon textual sources that may be obscure in modern society, the
accompanying commentary on the illumination explains the image.

The specific choice of visual images enables us to relate Psalms not only to the early
monotheism of the first millennium B.C.E., not only to the days of the Temple in
Jerusalem, but also to contemporary thought and circumstances. By fusing words and
pictures we may draw the ancient words more directly into the world of our own
experience. It is through relating the psalms to our own world that we can experience an
immediate, personal response of dialogue and emotion. Quite apart from choices of colors
and other graphic decisions, it is through these images – whose choice is indeed an
intellectual decision – that the emotional content can be expressed. In Psalm 128 a scene
of a flourishing garden conjures up the joy that the psalm promises the parent. Thus, in
illuminating Psalm 8, I fill an explosive and whirling star form with imagery and verses
drawn from modern science, from Sophocles and Shakespeare, to celebrate the
extraordinary abilities that God has bestowed upon humanity and evoke our awe at
God’s infinitely greater power.

A visual interpretation, a visual midrash of the psalms can convey these complex thoughts
with intellectual and emotional immediacy. Textual commentaries offer an important key
to understanding the value of the poems; indeed, the insights of diverse commentaries on
the psalms will play an important role in the visual interpretation of these texts. Modern
literary analysis such as that offered for each psalm in this collection offers an essential
key to revealing the import of the words not in the minds of later commentators, but in
the minds of the poets who wrote them. But although one can surround the psalm with
verbal commentary alone, how much more immediately emotive, how much more
thought-provoking, how much richer an experience may be realized through such a visual

The illuminated manuscript offers a kind of fusing other than that of words and pictures,
mentioned above; it offers a means to bridge the gap between contemporary experience
and earlier religious traditions. Illuminated manuscripts come to us from an age preceding
ours of instant word-processing and electronic communication, and are common to the
traditions of both Judaism and Christianity (as well as other religions). Our cultural
landscapes have been decorated by illuminated haggadot, bibles, and prayer books for
over a thousand years. Medieval Christianity, in particular, developed the tradition of the
illuminated psalter, of which many celebrated examples have survived. When both
contemporary and ancient imagery can complement the text in the traditional form of an
illuminated manuscript, we can experience a fusion of our communal past, our present,
and, if we are praying, perhaps even our hopes for the future.

The act of looking at an illuminated manuscript has been described as an “intimate
experience,” and as such may lend itself to this contemplative inner conversation in a
different way from other media, such as wall-mounted paintings or more modern typeset
and illustrated books. An illuminated manuscript may facilitate this inner conversation
differently, and perhaps better than these other media. Unlike the wall-mounted painting,
the illuminated manuscript (or, more often, its reproduction) can be held in one’s lap and
quietly contemplated at close range, shared with others or read privately in the time and
place of the reader’s choice. A more standard typeset and illustrated book may certainly
be read at any time or place, shared or privately. The isolated illustration floating in a sea
of black typeset lettering might provide a break from the text, but is not unified with it,
and requires separate concentration. In contrast, the manuscript form, enriched by
meaningful imagery and provocative design, with integrated text and images, lends itself
to close, leisurely contact and thus offers the viewer an intimate intellectual, emotional
and aesthetic experience that supports the inner conversation among the reader, the
Psalmist, and the Divine.

Readers of my earlier work, The Song of Songs: the Honeybee in the Garden, may already
be acquainted with my approach to crafting visual interpretions, visual midrash, of biblical
text. As I wrote in that work, I consider it essential that any given scene begins with a
representation that we recognize from the world of our own experience. Following Erwin
Panofsky’s exposition of “disguised symbolism” in the work of the masters of medieval
northern Europe, most notably Van Eyck, a reproduction of whose “Arnolfini Marriage
Portrait” has hung over my worktable since college days, I choose and arrange objects in
ways that make logical sense in the narrative setting. The imagery included will be drawn
from diverse sources, from midrash, from other biblical texts whose meaning relates to the
Psalm at hand, and from modern society and science. While the overall painting usually
creates a coherent, easily understood physical reality, parsing the symbolism of individual
items within it reveals a more complex world of ideas. Just as the literary analysis you
will find for each psalm probes the structure and contemporary significance of the literal
verses to help us appreciate the subtle nuance of the psalm, the artist’s commentary
accompanying each psalm’s pair of illuminations explains the iconography of the
paintings. It is these images and ideas that compose the full symbolic meaning of the
paintings. It is these images and ideas that, I hope, will help us crystallize and articulate
our reactions to the Psalms.

Within the Book

An anthology of thirty-six psalms was chosen for illumination in this volume; the texts of
all 150, however, may be found in the Appendix. The thirty-six illuminated here represent
a varied and representative sampling of the emotional and spiritual expressions embodied
in the 150 psalms. This anthology includes psalms of personal and communal joy,
rejoicing and gratitude, prayers for healing and redemption in times of desperation,
including some of the psalms singled out for healing by the famous eighteenth-century
Hasidic master, Rabbi Nachman of Bratislav. The anthology incorporates psalms
expressing the love of and longing for Jerusalem, psalms included in daily, Sabbath and
festival liturgies for both public synagogue and private home use, including the entire
Hallel cycle, several Psalms of the Day, psalms included in mourning rites, the
introductory psalms for the Grace after Meals, and finally, a number of psalms from
which Jewish tradition derives popular folk songs sung at weddings and other life-cycle
celebrations. The commentary materials for each set of illuminations mark the particular
place of the given psalm in Jewish tradition.

Each psalm is illuminated in both Hebrew and English. The translation included along
with the original Hebrew is the New Jewish Publication Society translation (NJPS)
published in 1985 ; however, for the sake of resonance for those accustomed to other
translations derived from the King James Version (KJV), in some cases where the NJPS
translation differs significantly from the KJV, and fidelity to the Hebrew is not
sacrificed, words drawn from the KJV or the earlier JPS translation published in 1917
have been substituted. These substitutions are noted within those psalms’ commentary

Along with the illuminations themselves, you will find commentary materials. The first
element of commentary is a concise literary analysis of the psalm at hand; full
appreciation of the psalm’s subtlety and power often depends upon appreciating its
nuances of word-choice, grammar and structure. We hope that this analysis, presented in
terms accessible to the educated lay-person, will deepen your appreciation of the psalm.
Following the literary analysis you will find a commentary on the illuminations. Because
the imagery in the illuminations draws not only upon the psalm, but also from a wide
range of biblical and midrashic texts, poetry, modern archeology and science which are
often not in the forefront of popular consciousness, I include these commentaries to
increase your appreciation of the richness of the psalm and its visual interpretation.

The choices and interpretations of the psalms included in this volume reflect the Jewish
tradition within which we, scholar and artist, live and work. However, just as Psalms
occupy a central role in Jewish liturgy and many home and life-cycle rituals, they are
valued in all three Abrahamic religions. Islam holds The Psalms of David, known in that
tradition as Zabur, among its sacred texts, although it does not incorporate them into
liturgy. Psalms have formed the core of Christian prayer since its inception. Jesus, as a
Jewish rabbi, quoted Psalms liberally in his teachings, and the earliest Church Fathers
founded Christian prayer on Psalms. Monastic movements recite the full Book of Psalms
in regular cycles, and the medieval traditions of psalters, breviaries and books of hours,
and indeed Gregorian chant are based on readings of the Psalms. In the high Middle
Ages, the psalter was regarded as the only biblical text which a Christian lay-person might
read freely on his or her own, and thus was used as the basic text for teaching reading
skills. At the outset of the Reformation, Psalms remained key texts for Luther and
Calvin and became the basis of Protestant prayer and source-material for hymns. A
fervent and well-read Lutheran, Bach’s Passions are largely based on texts from Psalms.
The very first book published in the American Colonies was the Bay Psalm Book,
produced in Massachusetts in 1640. It is outside the scope of this work to explore the
interpretation of the Psalms within Christianity. However, given their importance within
Christian traditions, we observe here the manner in which each of our chosen psalms
figure in Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox liturgies. Thus, the commentary materials for
each illuminated psalm will present a brief discussion of its place in Christian liturgical
traditions. We should note that every branch of Christianity also prescribes private lay
readings of psalms for various occasions (as does Judaism), as well as complex monastic
cycles in Catholic and Orthodox traditions, but here we treat public liturgical reading and
chanting. Again, given the diversity of these traditions, the scope of this work allows
mention only of those uses of the psalms familiar to lay-people, without exploring
historical development and regional or sectarian variations or monastic custom. The
commentary materials mention the use of the whole, or the greater part of the psalm at
hand, rather than the inclusion of individual verses or phrases in prayer services. The
Roman Catholic Lectionary has been the primary source for the Catholic tradition, the
Anglican Book of Common Prayer and the Revised Common Lectionary the sources for
Protestant custom, and the Orthodox Divine Office for the Orthodox churches.
Undoubtedly, distilling so many complex practices and traditions into brief statements
requires judgment that may result in apparent generalizations or omissions, and I beg the
reader’s understanding. I hope these discussions will help all of us to appreciate the
common inspiration, confidence and comfort that our communities find in these glorious
poems that we share.

Finally, I hope that this volume will not only give aesthetic pleasure, but help us all “be
strong and of good courage,” in the words of Moses and the Psalmist, as we pursue our
three-way conversation between ourselves, the Psalmist, and God.


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