David, Bathsheba, and the Penitential Psalms*

Article excerpt

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In the British Library copy of Miles Coverdale's 1540 Latin and English Psalter, directly above a woodcut printed on the verso of the title page, a Renaissance annotator has carefully inscribed a brief annotation (fig. 1). The annotation comprises the Latin phrase "Septem Psalmi poenitentiales" (Seven Penitential Psalms), followed by the numbers of those psalms: 6, 31, 37, 50, 101, 129, and 142. (1) The numerical list functions as an index, pointing to where the Penitential Psalms are located in Coverdale's Psalter. (2) The task of locating these seven psalms appears to have been particularly important to the annotator, who signs his name as "Georgius Harrison I:P" on the title page of the book. (3) Indeed, he has diligently labeled each of the Penitential Psalms in turn. Psalm 6, for example, is titled "primus psalmus poenitentialis" (First Penitential Psalm), while Psalm 37 receives the tag "Tertius psalmus poenitentialis" (Third Penitential Psalm), and Psalm 142, "Septimus psalmus poenitentialis" (Seventh Penitential Psalm). (4)

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Harrison has listed the numbers of the Penitential Psalms directly above an image of a messenger delivering a note from a king to a nearly-naked woman bathing in a fountain. This woodcut was first made for the Great Bible (printed in Paris and London in 1539), in which it is used twice. (5) Initially, it appears at the start of the eleventh chapter of 2 Samuel, where it illustrates the first segment of the story of David and Bathsheba (fig. 2):

  And it chaunced in an euenynge, that Dauid arose out of his bed, and
  walked vpon the roufe of the kynges palace, and from the roufe he sawe
  a woman wasshyng her selfe: and the woman was very bewtyfull to loke
  vpon. And he sent to enquyre what woman it shuld be, sayeng: is it not
  Bethsabe the daughter of Eliam, & wyfe to Urias the Hethite? And Dauid
  sent messengers, and fett her. And she came in vnto hym and he laye
  with her. And (immediatly) she was purified from her vnclennesse, and
  returned vnto her house. And the woman conceaued, and sent and tolde
  Dauid, and sayde: I am wyth chylde. (6)

When the woodcut appears for a second time in the Great Bible, it serves a different purpose. The image is reused at the top left-hand corner of a set of sixteen cuts assembled as the title-page border for part 3 of the Bible (fig. 3). (7) While in 2 Samuel the cut illustrates the main components of the story, in the title-page border its task is to represent an entire scriptural book--though not, oddly, 2 Samuel. (8)

The third part of the Great Bible comprises the Psalter, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, the Song of Songs, and the prophetic books (including Lamentations). (9) Why, then, does an image depicting a specific event in 2 Samuel appear on this title page? An answer is suggested by the very next page of the Great Bible, which uses a different woodcut of David's messenger delivering a letter to Bathsheba at the beginning of the Book of Psalms (fig. 4).

Unlike the cut at 2 Samuel 11, this second illustration of David and Bathsheba cannot be read as a depiction of a neighboring biblical text. Indeed, the new image seems distinctly out of place next to Psalm 1, which pronounces blessings on the man who does not walk "in the councell of the vngodly" but rather "exercise[s] him self daye & night" in "the law of the lorde." (10) Psalm 1 bears no relation to the narrative of David plotting to commit adultery with the wife of one of his soldiers. The new woodcut, therefore, makes sense only as a metonym, standing in for the Book of Psalms as a whole. (11) And it is now clear that the image of David and Bathsheba on the title page to part 3 of the Bible represents the complete Psalter in the same way.

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Reused at the start of Coverdale's 1540 Psalter, the woodcut from 2 Samuel in the Great Bible again functions as a metonym for the whole Book of Psalms (fig. …