Exterior of Cathedral of Saint-Gervais and Saint-Protais, Soissons, Picardy
East end of choir with Jesse Tree window in the center upper choir.
Cathedral Basilica of St. Gervasius and St. Protasius, Soissons, Picardy, France was built in the Gothic style beginning about 1177. It was mostly completed in the 13th century, though building did continue through the 15th century. Unfortunately the cathedral suffered many natural and man-made vicissitudes though the centuries. (See Madeline H. Caviness. Modular Assemblages: Reconstructing the Choir Clerestory Glazing of Soissons Cathedral. The Journal of the Walters Art Gallery (1990) 48: 57-68.) This included the loss of the original much of the stained glass in the cathedral that had survived for hundreds of years, iconoclasm by Huguenots during the Wars of Religion, wars including Franco-Prussian in 1870, and a large explosion. The window glass was removed in the 19th century for restoration. Instead of restoration, the stained glass was sold to collectors. Parts of the original windows now are found as far away as the United States in the Waters Art Gallery in Baltimore, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, the Glencairn Museum, Bryn Athyn, PA, and in Russia, as well as the Louvre. Much of the glass that was left was then destroyed in World War I. Even so, a Jesse Tree window survived in the choir clerestory.
The Jesse Tree window in the choir clerestory at Soissons has had much repair and restoration. The window is unusual in that Mary is flanked by two non-biblical sibyls. Two angels flank Christ in majesty instead of the usual two prophets. How did two sibyls come to be in a Jesse Tree window since sibyls are female oracles from ancient Greece thought to have prophetic power in telling the future?
The first sibyl is the Sibyl of Cumae, a character in Virgil’s Eclogue 4 who predicts “the Virgin returns,” and speaks of the birth of a boy who “shall have the gift of divine life.” The early church interpreted this prophesy for a coming messiah (Virgil lived 70-19 BCE). (Virgil. Eclogues, Georgics, Aeneid. Translated by Fairclough, H R. Loeb Classical Library Volumes 63 & 64. Cambridge, MA. Harvard University Press. 1916)
The second sibyl is the Erythraean Sibyl. St. Augustine of Hippo who lived from 354-430 CE wrote in his book, City of God, Chaper 23, “Of the Erythraean Sibyl, Who is Known to Have Sung Many Things About Christ More Plainly Than the Other Sibyls.” According to St. Augustine, the Erythraean sibyl referenced Jesus as Messiah through an acrostic poem about the coming judgment day when the earth would be utterly destroyed as would all persons on the earth in great fire and brimstone when the sun is eclipsed. The first letter of each line in Greek spells out “‘Іησους Χοιστος Θεου υιος σωτηο,’ which means, Jesus Christ the Son of God, the Savior.” The first letter in Greek also spell ICHTHYS or fish, an early symbol of Christianity and Christian worship.
The money needed for making the Jesse Tree window at Soissons as well as the other choir windows seems is the result of a convoluted story. King Philippe “Auguste” also referred to a Philip II who reigned from 1180-1223 gave the money before his death in 1223, but almost certainly about 1210.
After the death of Philip II’s first wife in childbirth, Philip married in 1193 the 18 years old sister of the King of Denmark, Ingeborg of Denmark. He repudiated Ingeborg the day after the marriage at her coronation. She was confined to Convent of St. Maur-des-Fossés near Paris and then the abbey of Cisoing or Cysoing, in the diocese of Tournai near Lille. From Cysoing, Ingeborg wrote to Pope Celestine III in 1195 and again in 1196 begging for help. Philip obtained an annulment from an group of bishops but this had never been approved by the Pope. Philip then married a third wife, Agnes of Meran, who died in 1201 after five years of marriage and two children. As a consequence of the unwillingness of Philip to take back Ingeborg, Pope Innocent III imposed a interdict over France from December 1199 to September 1200.
A council was called in Soissons in Lent 1201 by the papal legate, Cardinal Octavian of Ostia, to resolve the issues of the legitimacy of Phillip’s marriage to Ingeborg and listen to Philip's reasons for requesting an annulment of the marriage. When it became clear that Philip was going to lose his case, Philip capitulated to the council. During the council in 1201, Queen Ingeborg stayed at a convent at Soissons where Philip met with her. After the conclusion of the council at Soissons in 1201, Philip II retracted his pledge to take back as his wife. Instead from 1201, Ingeborg was confined to the donjon d’Etampes for six years in the cellars during which time she again begged for help from the pope given her appalling living conditions. Ingeborg lived above ground at Etampes for a further six years. Philip II did not take back his wife until April 1213 on the insistence of Pope Innocent III, and because he needed the political support of Denmark and Pope Innocent III for a potential invasion of England then ruled by King John. Philip II never lived with his wife. He died in 1223. After the death of Philip II, Queen Ingeborg was well treated by Louis VIII, the son of Philip II by his first wife and Louis XI as befitting the wealthy widow of a king.
The reasons for the gift of money to Soissons cathedral certainly include political considerations such as the conflict with England over English control of large areas of western France (the Angevin empire controlled by King Henry II and then Richard I the Lionheart), and the Fourth Crusade, and the diplomatic issues relating to Philip’s treatment of his wife. The money was apparently put promptly toward the fabrication of the stained glass windows since the choir was in use by May 1212. When King Philip II was in Soissons in 1213, scholars assume the upper levels of the choir were being finished.
What then is the tie between angels and sibyls in the Soissons’ Jesse Tree window and Queen Ingeborg? While the Queen was confined under deplorable conditions, a beautiful psalter was made for her with lavish gold illuminations including a full page Jesse Tree. The Ingeborg Psalter thus dates to 1193-1200, probably about 1095 or perhaps was made on the occasion of her marriage in 1193. The psalter is now housed at the Musee Conde in Chantilly, Oise.
The psalter was made in northern France in the Picardy region near or in Soissons or Noyon It is not known who commissioned the psalter since it was named for the Queen but not commissioned by her since she lived in abject poverty. In the Jesse Tree in the psalter, Jesus Christ is flanked by two angels and the Virgin Mary has a sibyl standing right edge of the page. The sibyl is Virgil’s Sibyl of Cumae. Thus, the designer of the Jesse Tree window in the Cathedral at Soissons seems to have knowledge of the Ingeborg Psalter. This is just one of many examples of a small illuminated Jesse Tree for private use apparently being the foundation for a larger Jesse Tree in stained glass intended for instruction of the public.
Nothing is known about the Master of the Ingeborg Psalter, the name given to the illuminator of the Ingeborg Psalter, a few things can be inferred. He must have been a monk who had studied extensively and had access to Virgil’s Eclogues and Augustine’s City of God. There is no clue as to why the Master of Ingeborg Psalter chose to add angels and a sibyl to the elegantly illuminated psalter. Sibyls appear in later Jesse Trees such as the one carved into the façade at the cathedral at Ovieto. The only obvious contemporary source is the Ordo Prophetarum or Procession of the Prophets play(s). But none of the several versions of the play that are extant date from the early 12th century. Yet, there is a 13th century Ordo Prophetarum from Laon, not far from Soissons or Noyon. (See: Robert C. Lagueux.Sermons, Exegesis, and Performance: The Laon Ordo Prophetarum and the Meaning of Advent. Comparative Drama (Summer 2009) 43:197-220.). So one might suppose that the monk making the Jesse Tree psalter and perhaps designing the Soissons Jesse Tree stained glass window was thinking of the Procession of the Prophets instead of or in addition to the rich psalter that he might have seen.
Jesse Tree from Ingeborg Psalter, c. 1193-1200. northern France. Musée Condé MS.1695, Chantilly, Oise, France The vielle player is King David and the harp player is King Solomon. (Usually it is David who holds the harp, but not so in this illumination. A harping Solomon recalls that Song of Songs is attributed to him.) The top figure is Jesus Christ enthroned between two angels and surrounded by seven doves. Below him is Virgin Mary with a red prayer book . The prophets on the left, top to bottom are Malachi, Daniel, and Amos. The figures on the right are Sibyl of Cumae, Ezekiel, and Joseph holding stem of lilies in bloom. Jesse is reposing at the bottom.
Jesse Tree window (Cowen Number 100) at the east end of the choir of Soissons Cathedral. Two kneeling angels flank Jesus and the Virgin Mary and two female sibyls flank the seated Virgin Mary and the unidentified king of Judah. Neither King David nor Solomon hold identifying symbols. The generic King of Judah holds a scepter. The six nimbed prophets cannot be identified. The Jesse figure is missing. Window was made probably about 1212 and extensively repaired during the centuries especially in the 17th and 19th centuries