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Book review: The Book of Psalms Illuminated

Monday, 28 August 2023  | Roslyn White

The Book of Psalms Illuminated

by Fiona Pfennigwerth

(Johor Bahru, Malaysia: TWP Sdn Bhd, 2021)


The Book of Psalms illuminated is the third of Fiona’s word and art compilations, where the Biblical text is adorned with the beauty and insight of her illustrations.

In her first publication, The Scrolls Illuminated, which explored the books of poetry in Hebrew scripture, Fiona established her place as a botanic artist, calligrapher and biblical scholar.

In the second, The Gospel According to John Illuminated, Fiona excels as a landscape artist, capturing the Australian outback, where we are surprised to find the Lamb of God atop a rock in a parched countryside. In contradiction, the abundance of light and water draws us into reverie as we comprehend the connection with images of Jesus in John’s Gospel.

This third work, The Book of Psalms illuminated is prodigious in its combination of Fiona’s talent as artist, calligrapher, observer of nature, and as a serious expert in textual analysis and Biblical scholarship. Each page reveals Fiona’s deep insight into the heart of the psalmists and her own delight in the God for whom they were penned and then shaped and gathered over more than 1,200 years.

Each publication was preceded by a year of prayerful immersion in the sacred text before pen or brush touched paper.

It is of note that these books find classification by the National Library under Religion and Theology rather than Art.

Fiona’s 30 pages of comments and endnotes go a long way in explanation and education. She sees pattern and shape overall within the Psalms, and identifies themes and the foreshadowing of the Gospel story.

Flora and fauna symbols along the margins alert the reader to the possibility of a deeper understanding beyond a primary focus on the text.

Fiona illustrates each book of the Psalter as follows:

  • Book One (Psalms 1 – 41), illustrations from around Tasmania
  • Book Two (Psalms 42 – 72), illustrations from the Kimberley (Western Australia) and the Grampians (Western Victoria)
  • Book Three (Psalms 73 – 89), illustrations from the arid Red Centre (Northern Territory)
  • Book Four (Psalms 90 – 106), illustrations mostly around water in the Red Centre (Northern Territory)
  • Book Five (Psalms 107 – 150), illustrations mostly from the Hunter Region (NSW).

The endnotes frequently cross reference and contextualise the psalm and provide identification and detail of each illustration.

Where a psalm presents the complexities of anguish and longing, Fiona chooses the positive sentiment.

I found myself sitting with one or two psalms a day, reflecting on the wonder of the words and her sometimes playful choice of illustration. For example, I note with delight our uniquely Australian platypus being Fiona’s appropriate choice in her illustration of Psalm 23.

David’s psalm of contrition (Psalm 51) following his encounter with the prophet Nathan reinforces the forgiveness of God by depicting a double waterfall purging and washing away David’s iniquity.

The forsakenness and despair of Psalm 22 finds us looking into the snarling faces of Tasmanian devils.

The ruinous desires of the enemies of David in Psalm 64 succeed artistically in deforming the flower rod of a grass tree, and a powerful contrast to the upright growth depicted alongside.

This is a mammoth hard cover work of 208 A4 pages in landscape orientation. Because of the sheer volume of text, the illustrations seem almost to take second place, unlike the two previous works where the size and detail of the artwork take one’s breath away. But in this third work it is the combination of the beautifully presented text, the illustrations and the endnotes that makes The Psalms illuminated artistically engaging, theologically informative and meditatively devotional.

I am fortunate to have seen the very large original artworks from which the Scrolls and Gospel of John are illustrated. It would be a delight to view what would be a substantial exhibition of the original artworks in the case of this work.

Hold this book with care and with reverence. It is weighty in wonder, scholarship and kilograms.

Fiona deserves our gratitude for this further gift of her time and talent.

Roslyn White is a spiritual director, retreat giver, singer, poet and grandmother.

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