History of Art


Violence and Warfare in the Utrecht Psalter

By Sehrish Alikhan

What sets the Utrecht Psalter (Utrecht, University Library, MS Bibl. Rhenotraiectinae I Nr 32) apart from most other medieval manuscripts are its sketch-like illustrations. The most intriguing feature of this ninth-century Carolingian manuscripts, which contains 150 Psalms, 16 Biblical Canticles and other texts, are its often humorously literal illuminations (Jaski n.d.). The understanding of the psalms that its artists articulate is unique and implies an in-depth understanding of theology and cognitive interpretation (Chazelle 1997: 1055–56). It is unclear by who, for whom or why this manuscript was made (Benson 1931; Jaski 2016: 71–72). However, the visual rendition of the text suggests that its images were moulded to serve the purposes of its patron(s), a view supported by the rendering of kingly and military figures. In fact, while the images of the Utrecht Psalter lend themselves to different interpretations, its illustrations suggest that its makers were deeply affected by the social and political context in which they operated.

Fig. 1. Illustration of Psalm 13 in the Utrecht Psalter, f. 7v (Image courtesy of: Utrecht University Library)

One of the most interesting figures in the psalter is a mysterious man with a sword on fol. 7v who can be seen among the illustrations of Psalm 13: 3 (Fig. 1). The psalmist at the top of a mountain points at this man who is seated under a canopy and has attributes (a throne and a sword settled sideways on his lap) that suggest he is a ruler. The psalmist’s gesture directs God’s and the viewer’s attention to the chaos that surrounds this figure with a sword. Opinions differ as to the identity of this man: is he a bad king or the Antichrist? There is a clear contrast between this figure, who is surrounded by chaos, and the haloed and enthroned Christ, who is surrounded by a mandorla and flanked by six angels. The latter is seated on a globe in a pose that mirrors that of the figure under the canopy: together they represent the difference between good and evil. 

The sword motif also calls for interpretation as it does not necessarily only represent kingship, but could also symbolize an omen of death and destruction. Moreover, if the man with the sword embodies a bad king, then this image shows how the misuse of power by royalty leads to violence and disorder in a kingdom. It is possible that tensions between church and state informed this scene. If so, the artist’s interpretation of the psalm is both literal and analytical: the scene draws on the text of Ps. 13 while also subtly adapting it to send a political message about the importance of following Christian precepts.

Fig. 2. Text and Illustration of Psalm 13 in the Utrecht Psalter, f. 7v (Image courtesy of: Utrecht University Library)

A company of mounted soldiers to the right of the psalmist are shown in the process of rounding up a group of unarmed men and women with children who represent the people of Israel (Ps. 13: 7). This latter group pleads with an armed figure who leans towards them from a hill to their right (Fig. 2). His identity, like that of the ruler with the sword, is unclear, but his spear and elliptical shield characterize him as a soldier. The solider stands on Mount Zion and his pose and attitude echo that of the angels above him. Unlike, the soldiers holding severed heads to the far left, he epitomizes a good warrior. The Utrecht Psalter’s depiction of soldiers and warfare on fol. 7v is carefully constructed to juxtapose those who follow God’s law with those who do not. 

Fig. 3. Illustration of Psalm 14 in the Utrecht Psalter, f. 8r (Image courtesy of: Utrecht University Library)

A virtuous solider also appears in the upper register of fol. 8r which illustrates Psalm 14 (Fig. 3). He appears at the centre of the composition and tramples over the body of a wrongdoer that he has defeated whilst holding out a bag of money and a scale to a crippled figure as an act of charity, showing that he “works righteousness” (Ps. 14: 2) and that he “does not put out his money at usury” (Ps. 14: 5). The beam scale he holds is a symbol of justice that indicates his virtuosity; while the hand of God which gestures towards him, can signifying that he is acting under divine direction.

The illustrations of the Utrecht Psalter may be inspired from earlier sources. However, the distinction between good and bad armed figures in this manuscript is testament to a desire to make these images relevant to contemporary viewers by showing that only those rulers and soldiers who “fear the Lord” (Ps. 14: 4) are capable of maintain order and waging just wars (Chazelle 1997; Jaski 2004). As Clelia Chazelle puts it, the manuscripts illumination “were possibly meant to exemplify the behaviour that Carolingian clergy, particularly in the 830’s and later, sought from the rulers and aristocracy who fought so vehemently among themselves” (2004: 348).



Benson, Gertrude R. ‘New Light on the Origin of the Utrecht Psalter’. The Art Bulletin 13, no. 1 (1931): 13–79.
Chazelle, Celia. ‘Archbishops Ebo and Hincmar of Reims and the Utrecht Psalter’. Speculum 72/4 (1997): 1055–77. 
Chazelle, Celia. ‘Violence and the Virtuous Ruler in the Utrecht Psalter’. In The Illuminated Psalter: Studies in the Content, Purpose and Placement of Its Images, edited by Frank O. Büttner, 337–48. Turnhout: Brepols, 2004. 
Jaski, Bart. ‘The Ruler with the Sword in the Utrecht Psalter’. In Religious Franks: Religion and Power in the Frankish Kingdoms: Studies in Honour of Mayke de Jong, edited by Rob Meens, Dorine van Espelo, Bram van Genderen, Janneke Raaijmakers, Irene van Renswoude, and Carine van Rhijn, 72–91. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2016.
Jaski, Bart. The Utrecht Psalter: A unique masterpiece. Universiteitsbibliotheek Utrecht, n.d. Accessed 7 March 2022. https://www.uu.nl/en/utrecht-university-library-special-collections/the-....

Acknowledgements: thanks are due to Bart Jaski and Utrecht University Library.