Penitential Psalms

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Last Judgment
Man of Sorrows Petitioned by Penitents

Hours of Catherine of Cleves, in Latin
Illuminated by the Master of Catherine of Cleves

Utrecht, The Netherlands
ca. 1440
Tempera on vellum
7 1/2 x 5 1/8 in. (192 x 130 mm)

Purchased on the Belle da Costa Greene Fund and with the assistance of the Fellows, 1963

MSS M.917, p. 28–M.945, f. 151r
Item description: 

Created in Utrecht, The Netherlands, around 1440, the manuscript was taken apart sometime before 1856. Its leaves were shuffled and then rebound into two volumes to make each look more or less complete. The first part was acquired by the duke of Arenberg, whose descendants owned it until 1957, when it was bought by New York dealer H. P. Kraus, who sold it to Alistair Bradley Martin. This volume had been known by scholars as the "Hours of Catherine of Cleves."

Meanwhile, the second part had been acquired by the Rothschild family, who kept their manuscripts secret. In 1963 their volume was sold to the Morgan as yet another "Hours of Catherine of Cleves." Studying the newly acquired book (it became MS M.917) along with the Martin volume, Morgan curator John Plummer determined that they were actually two halves of one and the same codex. In 1964 the Morgan mounted an exhibition of both volumes, displaying all the miniatures via color transparencies. When a facsimile of the manuscript was published by George Braziller in 1966, the exhibition was repeated. Finally, in 1970, the Morgan was able to buy the Martin volume (it became MS M.945), and thus came to own both parts of this greatest of all Dutch manuscripts.

Both volumes have been disbound in preparation for rebinding the leaves in proper order.

Page description: 

Codicological evidence—sewing holes and faint offset stains—confirms that this large Last Judgment occurred at the beginning of the Penitential Psalms. Trumpeting angels awaken the dead. Their intercessors are John the Baptist and Mary (who again bares her breast to her son). Their judge is Christ, who displays his dripping wounds. At his feet is the world, which rests on a rocky island; within a fissure in the rocks lurks a red demon. The smaller miniature is a bit more comforting: penitents approach Christ as the forgiving Man of Sorrows. In the bottom border, the Lamb of God pours his forgiving blood into a Eucharistic chalice.


Penitential Psalms

Medieval tradition ascribed the authorship of the Seven Penitential Psalms to King David, who composed them as penance for his grievous sins. These transgressions included adultery with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband, Uriah. In another commission of sin, a prideful David offended God by ordering a census of Israel and Judah.

These particular psalms (reckoned 6, 31, 37, 50, 101, 129, and 142 by medieval Catholics) have a long association with atonement. It is thought that by at least the third century they formed a part of Jewish liturgy. In the Christian tradition, they were known by the sixth century, when the Roman monk Cassiodorus referred to them as a sevenfold means of obtaining forgiveness. These seven psalms became linked to the Seven Deadly Sins; the former were prayed to avoid the latter.


Photography courtesy of Faksimile Verlag Luzern