The Province 8 House of Bishops had a rare opportunity to view the St. Alban’s Psalter at the Getty Library yesterday (January 9). The Psalter is a superb and unique work of medieval art and devotion. It was produced in England in the years following the Norman Conquest. The Psalter has one section which narrates the holy story contained in the Bible, scenes from the Old Testament and the Gospels, without any intervening text — a purely graphic narration.
The Psalter has been unbound for restoration and curation purposes, and will be rebound soon after leaving the Getty in February. Thus, viewing it as we were able to do is not an opportunity that will offered us again in our lifetimes.
The images in the Psalter are great art, seen individually, and together comprise a high achievement of spiritual and artistic expression. In my blog I’m going to show you some of these images and offer some meditations on their spiritual meaning.
The first image from the Psalter for us to look at is the Expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden.
The seraph who will guard the garden to prevent humanity’s return stands on the left of the picture. On the right are Adam and Eve, each carrying a symbol of the work that will mark the rest of their lives — Adam a hoe and Eve a spindle. No longer children in the Garden, they will toil and sweat and bear the responsibilities of adulthood and the consequences of their choices.
Adam holds his right hand up, perhaps in dismay at what God is telling them. Eve looks forward, and points to the wide world, the new home of humanity. No longer will they be in a walled garden, protected, but also contained.
God stands in the middle of the picture, turned towards Adam and Eve. God’s right hand is lifted, the index finger extended upward and toward the pair of people — it is a sign in this style of graphic narration that he is speaking. God is delivering the news that startles the listening Adam — the Garden is no longer your home and you may not return.
The interpretive signage at the Getty says that God’s left hand is pushing Adam forward and away, but is that so? It looks more to me like reassurance. Something most precious is lost in the expulsion from the Garden, and that is unbroken intimacy with God. But God is saying, with a comforting hand on Adam’s shoulder that while the conditions of adult human life are greatly different from the sweet, dependent life in the Garden, that God is still with us. We might feel this kinder interpretation strengthened by noting that the artist has carefully clothed Adam and Eve in the hides that Genesis said were provided by God.
Now, in the world to which Eve is already pointing the pair, her eyes turned forward following the direction of her pointing finger, our relationship with God is like adult life in general – it is something we must choose, desire, and cultivate. The good news is that God is waiting for us to make that choice and bend our will in the direction of the loving Divine.