King Henry as David

One of the most important things medieval illuminated books offered their patrons, in return for the huge costs of production, was their visual incorporation into the drama of God’s salvation. Instead of great tombs and memorials cluttering up churches and cathedrals, though there were plenty of those as well, the lord or lady is shown kneeling before her patron saint, or immortalized as one of the bystanders at the crucifixion.

At one level, this is not so much art as mere illustration; and yet it seems to have encouraged the personal involvement of the patrons in the whole process of the illumination, with the result that many of these religious scenes are more original and imaginative than we might suppose from the more public forms of art in the same period.

This picture from c.1540 (well into the age of printing) offers a late example of a patron’s involvement in what was to be for a work for his own personal use, a mixture of flattery, indulgence and humour. It comes from a Psalter, transcribed and illustrated in the Renaissance French style, by Jean Mallard, for King Henry VIII.

It gives us two clear and realistic portrayals. One shows the king himself as David the psalmist, complete with harp, while nearby is his court fool or jester, William Somer, who illustrates the opening of Psalm 53, Dixit inspiens in corde suo: non est Deus. The fool says in his heart: there is no God.

Anthony Saville

From the catalogue to the Sacred exhibition at the British Library [seep. 24]