Penitential Psalms

Psalms and Sin

Laypeople would recite one or several of the seven Penitential Psalms included in a typical Book of Hours (Psalms 6, 31, 37, 50, 101,129, and 142 in the modern numbering) in order to combat sin and as an act of atonement for their own sins or those of others, decreasing the time spent in Purgatory. The Psalms were believed to have been composed by King David, and many Books of Hours illustrate the opening of the Penitential Psalms either with an image of David sinning (spying on Bathsheba as she bathes) or repenting (kneeling in prayer).

King David

Castle Hours #2, Penitential PsalmsKing David coveted Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah, one of his military officers, so he sent the unfortunate husband to war to get him out of the way. When Bathsheba became pregnant, he ordered Uriah to return home, hoping to conceal their sin. Uriah refused to visit his wife, folowing the custom of staying in the military accomodations, so David sent him back with orders that he be placed in the front lines. After his death the adulterers married, but their child was struck down by God, who also visited other punishments upon the nation.

The full-page miniature illustrating the Penitential Psalms has been removedLawrence Hours, Penitential Psalms from the Lawrence Hours, but a visual acknowledgement of the king remains. The crown in the margin of the right hand page alludes to both David as the author of the psalms, and to God, the Lord to whom the psalms are addressed.

Another Illustration

Streeter-Piccard Hours, Christ in Judgement
The miniature accompanying the Penitential Psalms in the Streeter-Piccard Hours shows Christ in Judgment; he sits above the world globe as souls rise from their tombs to be separated into the saved and the damned.  The Virgin Mary, seen on the left, looks upward towards her son, interceding on behalf of sinners.  The close visual correspondence between this image and the Crucifixion in the same manuscript (shown illustrating None) ties together the various events in the Biblical account of the salvation of humanity.  In such Judgment images, Christ is normally depicted with a lily coming out of one side of his mouth and a sword coming out of the other, representing salvation and damnation respectively.  Such images would have served as a testament of the importance of penitence to salvation. In this manuscript there has been an artistic error resulting in two swords coming out of Christ's mouth, suggesting a rather harsh view of Judgment Day.