Mediaeval Genre Reincarnated in the Reformation

The St Albans Psalter has pictures everywhere. Thinking about the St Albans Psalter as an important mediæval psalter reminds me of the Protestant Reformation, whose churches, as Nevin and Schaff (and Luther!) might say, are as much heir to the mediæval cultural heritage as the papist churches. Charles Washington Baird, in Eutaxia, or, The Presbyterian Liturgies: Historical Sketches (M. W. Dodd, 1855), 74, cites John Quick’s Synodicon (1692), Chapter iii, Article 40:

The Eleventh Synod [of the Reformed churches in France], which met 1581, ordered that printers publishing the Psalm-book of the Church should not separate from it the Prayers and Catechism, but bind them together. An earlier law provides that all persons should bring their Psalm-books with them to divine service, and reproves those who fail in doing so.

So did the genre of the psalter continue to live in the Reformed churches of France and in the Church of England, in France’s Reformed psalm books and in England’s Book of Common Prayer.

‘Aulcuns pseaulmes et cantiques mys en chant. A Strasburg. 1539.’ (Side note: the blackletter looks quite attractive in conjunction with the roman type.) Indeed, not only do these books simply reproduce the Psalms of David, but in continuity with the mediæval genre they also contain ‘canticles’, by which is probably meant the evangelical canticles, namely the Magnificat, the Benedictus and the Nunc Dimittis.

Taking the evidence of the 1581 synod, we can see that by that date it was normative for these psalms and canticles, rendered into song, to be bound together in one physical object with ‘the Prayers and Catechism’: these psalters would then have been the kind of devotional material for the laity in the sixteenth century that the St Albans Psalter may have been for Christina of Markyate in the twelfth. Instead of pictures ‘for instruction’, however, these Reformed psalters have catechisms in them.

This substitution’s in keeping with the continental Reformed tendency toward iconoclasm, reflected in the Puritan destruction of images in the Church of England – one thinks also of whitewashed churches. What’s lost for today in the wholesale replacement of images with words of doctrinal and (if they used the Heidelberg Catechism of 1563) devotional instruction? Opportunities for intertextual connexion within the book, I think – and thus potential depiction of redemptive-historical typology – unless you fill up the pages with lots of little marginalia. For meeting that task with œconomical order and harmony, though, my opinion’s that you can’t beat pictures.

Now, I do understand the need during the Reformation for some uniformity in what these books held between the covers, as well as the good purpose of destroying superstition. Whatever my æsthetic instincts, maybe it really was a good thing that stone altars in Tudor church buildings were destroyed and replaced with wooden tables. The French Reformed psalters, I’m sure, even have a graceful beauty of their own, as does the Book of Common Prayer, without ostentation, without pretention, without idolatry.

But maybe now’s a time once more to produce psalters that contain woodcuts if not coloured illuminations, not for vain ornamentation but with regard for edification and beauty. We may once have broken images in order to abolish mediæval superstitions, but the Anointed will break the nations with a rod of iron, for the Father has set the Son upon his holy hill. What we want now, I venture to say, are images that call the reader to the Martyr’s crown, images that show us the beauty of the Cross. Such images would encourage godliness rather than idolatry and draw our eyes upward rather than inward.

And as far as I know, visual depiction of Jesus doesn’t break the second commandment of the Decalogue:


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