King David and his pretty little lyres

When researching the old European lyres there are two pictures that always keep surfacing:

The Vespasian Lyre

Probably the most famous is the one of King David in the Vespasian Psalter (Southern England, 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 8th century). In it we see David on his throne, surrounded by musicians, four horn players, two people clapping on the lower end of the page. He is flanked by two scribes, ready to write down the psalm lines. On his lap we see our focal point; a lyre.

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Vespasian Lyre (detail)

The model seems to be consistent with archaeological finds from the British isles, like the Sutton Hoo, Prittlewell and Morning Thorpe examples. Upon closer look we see a couple of things. The picture is a bit vague, because the lyre originally was covered with a layer of silver leaf, now corroded. But we can still distinguish 6 strings. David’s hands are in a normal playing position, the left touching the strings from the back of the lyre, the right plucking the strings from the front.

The Durham Lyre

The second one that often comes up in literature is found in the Durham Cassiodorus. This copy of Cassiodorus’ 6th century psalm explanations, was made in Northumbria around 730. One of only two illuminations showing David as Victor and Musician. We see David, again sitting on his throne, playing a lyre.

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Durham Lyre (detail)

We only see this lyre from the back. The model seems to be a bit more rounded, with a prominent trapezoid hole through which we see an indication of strings. But, even more surprising, there is a double line between the arms, crossing David’s left wrist. This seems to be a strap to keep the lyre in position. On the back of the yoke we see five (!) pegs, other than the usual six.

Why a lyre?

It seems a bit odd to depict David with a lyre, while the bible says he played on the harp. Perhaps it is because the Anglo-Saxon word for the lyre was “Hearpe“. Later this word would also be used for the triangular harps that came into fashion around the 10th century.

It is a rather nice exercise to look at all te different instruments and instrument forms David was depicted with through the centuries. This certainly holds some pleasant and confusing surprises…

Making reconstructions

I know what critics are going to say; these pictures were never meant to represent reality. And I agree with them. It is clear these are not naturalistic or realistic. They are made in a manner typical for their time, close to the Byzantine tradition. The thrones, for example, look very close to the ones depicted in the icons of “Christ Pantocrator”. And it would be quite a challenge to reconstruct a throne based on these illustrations.

Because we have no real objects on which we can rely for the scale I decided to use the width of one hand span (around 8″) to which all surviving lyres more or less adhere. As you know from my research into early measurement systems this varied between different areas. To my knowledge there isn’t a standardized system found for the Anglo-Saxon era, so I settled the modern Inch.

When I started to draw the outlines in my CAD program it dawned on me how small these lyres really are. With 47 cm body length the Vespasian lyre is the smallest example we know.

The lost lyre of st. Severin

Reconstruction of the st. Severin lyre

One article about historical lyres dismisses these examples based on their small size. But archaeological evidence shows there were small models of lyre in existence. The “St. Severin”  lyre was found in Cologne, Germany. Even though it was pretty far gone (it lay partly under the body of its owner), the length could be established at 51,3 cm. The original was lost in WWII, another victim of the bombings. But a copy and some pictures survive.

The two reconstructions
Vespasian (L) and Durham (R)

At 54,5cm the Durham lyre is slightly larger than the St. Severin. These smaller sizes demand for a higher tuning. So I opted for D (Durham) and C (Vespasian) to keep them compatible with the G lyre. This seems to work well.

The two lyres next to my “standard model” (in G).

On the back of these prototypes I made two laser engravings of the drawings. These are available on custom order…

I hope to make a short video with sound samples soon. Or come over to the shop (or a re-enactment event) to try them for yourself…

This entry was posted in History, lyre, Music, Projects, Re-enactment, Research, Think different, Uncategorized, Woodworking, Workshop and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to King David and his pretty little lyres

  1. defaoiteclan says:

    They look great. I was curious, is the whole structure hollow, or are the parts around the ‘hole’ solid? Also what wood is in that one on the right, it has a lovely varied tones in it.


  2. Very interesting and your instruments look beautiful. I would love to hear their sounds. Please let me know when you have recordings available online. Thank you.


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