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Masterpieces  / Psalter

Text: Author: Family: Time:  
Isaiah at Prayer
  • Family: Psalter   -  Reference:1119
  • Location:National Library, Paris
  • Size:23,5 x 35 cm   -   Number of pages:1
  • Time: X century
  • Binding:

This magnificent miniature showing the prophet Isaiah at prayer, between Nyx, the night and Orthros, the young day, belongs to the world-famous book of psalms known as the Paris Psalter. It is an X century manuscript from Byzantium, from the metropolis Constantinople and was brought to Paris, only in the year 1557/9, by the ambassador Jean Hurault de Boistaillé. The Psalter takes its place in the history of art as a prominent witness to the “Macedonian Renaissance”. Following the extended and destructive crisis of Iconoclasm (726-843), when the worship of images and indeed all representation of religious figures were forbidden, and many artists fled from Byzantium, a revival of Byzantine art and science occurred in the IX century under the Macedonian emperors. With the approval of the Roman Court and Hellenistic, models appeared in art in a classical Rebirth, side by side with the Christian subject matter.


The 495 leaves of this aristocratic psaltery include fourteen full-page miniatures for which it is renowned and which were responsible for the introduction of the term “Macedonian Renaissance” into the history of art. They are painted in an impressionistic and Hellenistic style, which became part of the Byzantine tradition; it had never been really subdued despite Iconoclasm and after its revival in the X century continued to influence the art of pictorial representation for at least another hundred years. These precious miniatures with rich frames precede the texts of the psalms but do not illustrate them faithfully; nevertheless, nine of the themes concern the life of David, the legendary creator of the psalms. The remaining five represent scenes from the life of Moses, Hannah, Jonah, Isaiah and Ezekiel.

The most impressive miniature of the whole cycle is certainly that of Isaiah. Here the contemporary fusion of antique and Christian elements is perfectly achieved. Isaiah stands in front of a symbolic gold background, in a landscape where flowers and trees flourish. He is absorbed in his conversation with God, whose hand sends out a luminous ray to call the prophet. Isaiah’s form is powerful and muscular - the embodiment of the Hellenistic ideal. He stands between two other figures that appear to be unaware of his vision. They are the antique personification of the night, holding over her a semicircular cloth sprinkled with stars and a torch pointing downwards and the young, Dionysian-days raising up his torch. Both figures are based directly on Roman prototypes, but placed here in a new context with an Old Testament subject. Isaiah himself, the first of the great prophets to be assigned an extended text in the Old Testament, was represented as far back as the III and IV centuries on sarcophagi and on wall-paintings - due to his foretelling the birth of the Savior as the “Son of the Virgin” (Isaiah VII, 14): Here he is depicted in a completely Hellenistic style without attributes. The hidden position, between the night and the break of day, between death and resurrection, is symbolic of his role as prophet. The political-religious conceptions of the historical prophecy of Isaiah (c. 727-689 BC) active in Judah at the time of internal political reforms, strife and turmoil as well as harsh threats from outside, posed by the great powers of Babylon, Egypt and Assyria, fluctuated between “night” and “light”, despair and promise, between apocalyptic visions and hopes for the salvation of his people whom he was destined to lead from blindness and darkness into the light, thanks to God’s wrath and his mercy. Despite the inclusion of allegorical and symbolic elements the representation of the scene is bound by the reality of life on earth. Even Day and Night are gods of this world, given human form and moving among trees and flowers. However, in contrast to early Christian depictions in which the Christian vision was served by a language of forms taken from the antique, here Christian motifs are treated with their own iconography alongside the antique. The unreal gold ground, the Christian symbol of enlightenment and the commanding hand of God coming forth with a ray of light are symbols unknown in the antique art.

Even if we know that elements of this composition are derived from different sources, both, Antique and Christian, they are fused together in a harmonic reality. The impressionist painting style conveys the illusion of spatial and physical reality in a scene which, although “staged”, conveys a historic moment and its spiritual experience in a comprehensive way -the supreme truth of the prophetic mission.

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