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Peering into the Psalter of the Passion

For my blog post, I chose to write about the Psalter of the Passion section found in one of the British Library’s manuscripts, Harley MS 2985. Having no idea what the Psalter of the Passion was, I set out to do some research. And I found… almost nothing. There was only one reference to the Psalter of the Passion in the books Dr. Camp recommended, and it was a footnote for an image of this section in another manuscript. Additionally, a Google search for “Psalter of the Passion” revealed only ten results: all manuscripts that contain this section. Since I couldn’t find any research on the Psalter of the Passion, I set out to do my own.

The first step was identifying the Psalms contained in Harley MS 2985’s Psalter of the Passion. I did this by comparing them to the Psalms in the Latin Vulgate Bible. Using the Vulgate Bible, I found that this Psalter of the Passion contains five medieval Psalms: 21, 25, 27, 28, and 30. Of the five, Psalms 21, 25, 27, and 28 are written out completely, and only the first six verses in Psalm 30 are written. In addition to the five Psalms, there is a short prayer, Oratio Sine Oremas, at the end of the Psalter of the Passion.

To help with my understanding of the Psalter of the Passion, I found four other manuscripts that contain this section: Baltimore, Walters Art Museum, Walters MS W.202; London, British Library, Kings MS 9; London, British Library, Add MS 54782; and Cambridge, Cambridge University Library, MS ff.6.8. Harley MS 2985, Walters MS W.202, and Kings MS 9 all have identical Psalter of the Passion sections. They each contain the medieval Psalms and prayer I mentioned above. Add MS 54782 and MS ff.6.8 each contain Psalms 21- 26 and 29-30:1-6, and an unidentified prayer. Determined to find a link between these five manuscripts, I looked at their manuscript descriptions and found that all five have similar origin stories. They were all made in Bruges in the fifteenth century for the English market. All of these manuscripts, with the exception of MS ff.6.8, are Use of Sarum (MS ff.6.8 is also probably Use of Sarum, but the manuscript description does not state a Use).

Since the Psalms included in the Psalter of the Passion seemed random, I quickly acquainted myself with their modern edition: the Psalms of the Passion. Psalms 21-30:6 are known as the Psalms of the Passion. Cynthia Robinson, a professor of History of Art and Visual Studies at Cornell, writes that Psalms 21-30 were “believed by medieval Christians to have been prayed by Christ from the Cross during the final hours of his life.” Because they believed these Psalms were said by Jesus on the cross, medieval Christians made these Psalms a part of the Passion, like Pilate’s washing of his hands or Peter’s thrice denial.

Knowing that Jesus was quoting directly from Psalms made the job of finding links between the Psalms of the Passion and the Gospels’ accounts of the Passion of Christ easier. I was also able to understand why medieval Christians believed that Jesus said these Psalms. The opening line of the Psalter of the Passion, Psalm 21:1 “oh God my God…why hast thou forsaken me?” is a line that the Gospels record Jesus saying on the cross. It is written here in Matthew 27:46 “About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice…‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus’s famous last words, “‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit’” (Luke 23:46) are the last lines of the Psalter of the Passion, Psalm 30:6 “Into thy hands I commend my spirit…” Thus, it makes sense that medieval Christians would have believed that everything in between those lines was also said by Jesus.

According to Honorius of Autun, Gemma animæ, Liturgica, cap. 83: De tragœdiis:

“Decem namque psalmos, scilicet a Deus meus respice usque In manus tuas commendo spiritum meum cantavit, et sic expiravit.”  [“For He sang ten Psalms, that is, from the Deus meus respice to In manus tuas commendo spiritum meum, and then died.”][1]

Jesus’s recitation of Psalms 21-30:6 is not their only connection to the Passion. Several of the events of the Passion seem to have been foretold in Psalms. Psalm 21:15 says “I am poured out like water…” and in John 19:34 “…one of the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water.” Jesus is indeed poured out like water.

Another seemingly prophetic verse from the Psalms of the Passion is Psalm 21:19 “they parted my garments amongst them; and upon my vesture they cast lots.” This happens to Jesus while he is on the cross. Matthew 27:35 says “when they had crucified him, they divided up his clothes by casting lots.”

Psalms 25 and 27 are harder to connect with the Passion, as they seemed to go against the teachings of Jesus.

“I have hated the assembly of the malignant; and with the wicked I will not sit.” (Psalm 25:5)

“Give them according to their works, and according to the wickedness of their inventions. According to the works of their hands give thou to them: render to them their reward. Because they have not understood the works of the Lord, and the operations of his hands: thou shalt destroy them, and shalt not build them up.” (Psalm 27:3-4)

To me, this seems to contradict the very purpose of Jesus’s coming, as even on the cross, “Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). As for what they believed in the Middle Ages, I was not able to find any research that there was a medieval belief that Jesus’s persecutors were punished for this crime, though it would certainly fit the medieval mindset of justice and punishment.

One thing this project taught me is that the medieval perspective is entirely different from the modern perspective. They were more focus on the Passion than modern Christians are. They believed different things about the world and their lives were ruled by a completely different system. It is sometimes easy to forget, when looking at a manuscript, that we cannot use modern logic and ideologies to inspect medieval texts. Though we can see and touch manuscripts from that era, it is important to keep in mind that we should be looking at these things with medieval eyes.



[Featured image is taken from London, British Library, Harley MS 2985]


Bible Gateway

British Library Add MS 54782

British Library Harley MS 2985 

British Library Kings MS 9 

Digital Walters W.202

Latin Vulgate Bible

The Psalms of the Passon: A Lenten Devotion

Robinson, Cynthia. Imagining the Passion in a Multiconfessional Castile. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2013.

University of Cambridge MS ff.6.8