Throughout the middle ages, the popularity of the Book of Psalms caused it to be reproduced in Latin as a separate volume of devotional literature called the Psalter. In medieval manuscripts, the opening phrase of Psalm 1, “Beatus vir,” was often richly decorated, as in this example from the thirteenth-century.
The Latin Beatus is related to the modern English words beatific and beatitude and translates as happy or blessed. Vir is the Latin word for man with variations persisting in modern language: virile, virtue, and virtuoso. The King James Version of the Psalms (which did not exist yet in the middle ages) opens with the close English equivalent “Blessed is the man.”
The university library in Utrecht preserves an early ninth-century manuscript of the Psalter, likely originating from the family of Charlemagne. This rare volume, known today as the Utrecht Psalter, is unique in that it presents pen-drawing illustrations for each of the 150 psalms. It recently became available online, where it can be consulted in its entirety (http://bc.library.uu.nl/node/599).
When I first saw the full-page illustration for Psalm 1, I was struck by a distinct sense of familiarity, even though this manuscript and its illustrations were completely new to me. Upon closer inspection and in reviewing its relationship to the text of the first Psalm, I noted a striking similarity to every family home evening, Sunday School lesson, and flannel board retelling of Lehi’s dream from 1 Nephi 8 in the Book of Mormon.
Before showing the full-page illustration, here first is a consideration of the detailed sections, one portion at a time. In reviewing the elements of this illustration, I will cite the Douai-Reims translation into English of the Vulgate (Latin) Bible in order to remain faithful to the version of the Psalms that the scribes and artists of the Utrecht Psalter would have been familiar with.
Psalm 1:1 Blessed is the man …
Psalm 1:2 But his will is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he shall meditate day and night.
The happy man is depicted in a pavilion under sun, moon and stars, accompanied by an angel as he reads and contemplates the scriptures—perhaps the very Psalms that we are also reading.
Psalm 1:1 Blessed is the man who hath not walked in the counsel of the ungodly, nor stood in the way of sinners, nor sat in the chair of pestilence.
The Chair of Pestilence is represented at the top of the page as a throne in a luxurious palace that may remind us of Lehi’s description of a “great and spacious building; and it stood as it were in the air, high above the earth.” (1 Ne. 8:26)
Psalm 1:3 And he shall be like a tree which is planted near the running waters, which shall bring forth its fruit, in due season. And his leaf shall not fall off: and all whatsoever he shall do shall prosper.
From the perspective of Lehi’s dream, all that is missing from this river that leads to the tree and its sublime fruit is a path and a rod of iron (1 Ne 8:19-20).
Psalm 1:4 Not so the wicked, not so: but like the dust, which the wind driveth from the face of the earth.
The wind, blowing out of the mouth of the cloud on the left, drives away the wicked armed men. They are led away from the river and the tree, as if in an “exceedingly great mist of darkness, insomuch that they who had commenced in the path did lose their way, that they wandered off and were lost.” (1 Ne 8:23)
Psalm 1:5 Therefore the wicked shall not rise again in judgment: nor sinners in the council of the just.
In this part of the image, we can make out winged devils using their hooks and pitchforks to cast the wicked into the pit of Hell.
Psalm 1:6 For the Lord knoweth the way of the just: and the way of the wicked shall perish.
We might rightly ask how any similarity between Lehi’s dream and this ninth-century Psalm illustration could be anything more than coincidence. Yet, we know that Lehi had in his possession scriptures in the form of the brass plates. It is not unlikely that these plates contained the Psalms. We also know that one revelation can lead to another, just as Lehi’s dream became the springboard for Nephi’s far more expansive and detailed revelation (1 Ne 11-14). It seems possible to imagine, therefore, that Lehi, following an evening of meditation upon the first Psalm, received a clarifying revelation in the form of a dream. This purely speculative scenario offers a possible link between these two visually rich and thematically similar passages of scripture.
The Utrecht Psalter illustration contains two figures in conversation and whose role is not evident from the text of the Psalm. Yet, in Lehi’s account, their identities seem quite evidently associated with the one receiving revelation and the angelic interpreter or guide: 1 Nephi 8:5 “And it came to pass that I saw a man, and he was dressed in a white robe; and he came and stood before me.”
The overall theme of both the Psalm and of the dream may be represented in Lehi’s exclamation, “as I partook of the fruit thereof it filled my soul with exceedingly great joy.” (1 Ne. 8:12)
Happy is the man!
Dating from the ninth century, the Utrecht Psalter is the earliest surviving example of an illustration for Psalm 1, but other manuscripts in later centuries perpetuated and modified the same visual motifs, as in the following examples.
Harley Psalter. http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/Viewer.aspx?ref=harley_ms_603_f001v
The Harley Psalter dates from the first half of the eleventh century. Its creators directly copied the illustrations of the Utrecht Psalter.
Eadwin Psalter. http://sites.trin.cam.ac.uk/manuscripts/r_17_1/manuscript.php?fullpage=1 (scroll to f. 005v).
Created in the twelfth century, the Eadwin Psalter provides Latin captions identifying each of the major characters in the illustration.
Paris Psalter (BNF Latin 8846). http://warburg.sas.ac.uk/vpc/VPC_search/pdf_frame.php?image=00021292
In this late-twelfth-century interpretation, the “blessed man” is Christ. The top right square is the chair of pestilence. On the bottom left is the tree and the river. Between the panels is the wind. Notice how the style and interpretation have evolved from the ninth-century predecessor.
There are hundreds of examples of the decorated phrase Beatus Vir. Here are a few of them.
- Bibliothèque nationale et universitaire de Strasbourg, Ms.5.522, fol. 26r.
- Bibliothèques d’Amiens métropole, Ms. 18, fol. 1v.
- Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des Manuscrits, Français 13091, fol. 31r.
- Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des manuscrits, Latin 11565, fol. 2r.