Some twenty years ago, I was asked to take on and develop a program about a Jesse Tree for children for the First Sunday of Advent at the Chapel of the Cross where I attend church. All I could remember was the Jesse Tree window of Chartres and a brief mention of the ceiling at St. Michael’s Church at Hildesheim that was destroyed during World War II. It was a dim haze of memory, at best. It has been a long time since I took the required History of Art course with the 1st edition of H. W. Hanson’s weighty book, that eventually became a classroom staple for decades. But at least it was a place to start learning more about the great variety of Jesse Trees.
Even now, the single lancet Jesse Tree at the west end of the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres is the prototypical Jesse Tree that most students of introductory art history classes know. The window was made shortly after 1144. The Chartres Jesse Tree window is a copy of the one ordered by Abbot Suger for the Abbey Church of Saint-Denis in Paris that was completed on or before 1144 when the rebuilt choir of St. Denis was dedicated. [The famous art historian, the late Erwin Panofsky, dated the rise of Gothic architecture to the reconstruction of the east end of St. Denis.] The Chartres’ Jesse Tree window is probably the oldest complete Jesse Tree window still existing.
The Jesse Tree window of Chartres Cathedral. Delaport window #1
Photo credit: Painton Cowen.
Detail of top of Jesse Tree window with Jesus Christ seated in majesty, surrounded by seven doves.
The model of the St. Denis-style or Dionysian Jesse Tree window is a vertical glass cartoon for a single lancet window containing two sets of stories: the family tree of Jesus and the prophesies of the Messiah. In the bottom center panel, Jesse, the father of David, is reclining. From his abdomen arises a tree trunk or vine. In the center glass panels, one above another, are two and often more kings of Israel. The center panels are an abbreviated ancestry of Jesus from Jesse and Kings David and Solomon. In the earliest windows such as Chartres, the kings are not identified with iconographic symbols such as a harp or scepter. The two kings above Jesse are assumed to the David and Solomon followed by one or more generic kings. Above the kings is the Virgin Mary seated at the feet of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is enthroned in majesty at the top of the panel. The figures are seated in static frontal poses frequently with hands grasping the Jesse Tree vine.
On each side of the seven central glass panels in the Chartres window are representations of 14 Old Testament prophets, priests, and leaders: Nahum, Hosea, Samuel, Amos, Ezekiel, Micah, Zechariah, Joel, Moses, Balaam, Isaiah, Daniel, Habakkuk, and Sophonias or Zephaniah. The prophets in the Jesse Tree window at Chartres hold scrolls or banderoles with names. I wish I knew why the Jesse window at Chartres does name its prophets but the windows that generally followed the design of Chartres have only generic unidentified prophets. It is only a century latter that sometimes there are names or identifying verses for the prophets. Unfortunately without names or banderoles or standardized symbols, there is no way to identify the prophets portrayed in the windows found in France and England. The numbers of prophets, patriarchs and the addition of one or two sibyls are all variable in the surviving 12th and 13th century windows and fragments. The Jesse Tree is topped with seven doves surrounding the head of Christ. This vertical design is sometimes given the shorthand name of “Norman stack.”
The stained glass windows of the Royal Abbey of Saint Denis were made beginning about 1140 or so, probably only a few years before the Jesse window at Chartres. At that time, St. Denis was a small town north of Paris. Now St. Denis is part of Paris.
The Jesse window and the other stained glass windows at St.Denis were made under the direction and supervision of Abbot Suger. They were costly to make and considered quite precious by Abbot Suger. He wrote:
“Since their marvelous workmanship and the cost of the sapphire and painted glass makes these windows very valuable, we appointed a master craftsman for their protection and maintenance, just as we also appointed a skilled goldsmith for the gold and silver ornaments.”
The windows at the Abby Church of St. Denis managed to survive the Wars of Religion (1562-1598) that ended with the coronation of Henri IV and the issuing of the Edict of Nantes that granted substantial political and social rights to the Huguenots. The Jesse window and the other windows even survived the French Revolution when many windows within the reach of the stones and other objects wielded by mobs were destroyed. In 1799, Alexandre Lenoir removed about 140 stained glass panels that were to be exhibited at his Musée des Monuments Français in Paris. Only 31 panels were returned to the choir of the church. The rest were smashed in an oxcart accident or sold by Lenoir privately to collectors.
Fortunately some of Suger’s windows were sketched in 1794-5 by Charles Percier, including the reclining Jesse. He had been commissioned to design the installation of some royal tombs removed during the French Revolution. He apparently sketched the windows at part of his plans for the design. His sketches are the only surviving record of the scheme of the gothic windows. The sketches were helpful when restoration of the window began in 1847 by Viollet-le-Duc. Fortunately for the Jesse Tree window, some of the center panels were not lost or broken. Pieces of the border survived and so the complete window could be pieced together with original and reproduced glass in the 19th century.
The restored Jesse Tree window at St. Denis.
Photo credits: Painton Cowen
Detail of top of Jesse window at St. Denis 1140 and 19th century.
The man whose vision and direction authorized the renovation of St. Denis and the production of its stained glass was Abbot Suger. He was probably a native of St. Denis, born about 1081. He was given at age 9 or 10 (oblate) to the monastic community at St. Denis. He had short stature and small size. The humble origins and size of Suger have been summed up in Simon Chevre d’Or’s epitaph:
Small of body and family, constrained by two fold smallness,
He refused in his smallness to be a small man.
Suger was educated and served in a number of capacities at the monastery and at the courts of Louis VI and VII, Kings of France. He led an active life travelling to Normandy and south France and Rome as part of his duties. When elected Abbot in 1121-1122, he was on another trip to Rome. Abbot Suger was a shrewd administrator and astute financier permitting the extensive rebuilding of St. Denis. At his death, in 1151, Abbot Suger left behind substantial written material including a memoir of his administration. It was probably written between 1144 and 1148. Unfortunately the Jesse Tree window of St.-Denis only gets a passing mention by Suger in Ch. 34 of On what was done under his Administration (Liber de rebus in administratione sua gestis). He wrote, “we caused to be painted, by the exquisite hands of many masters from different regions, a splendid variety of new windows, both below and above; from that first one which begins the series with the Tree of Jesse in the chevet [east end] church to that which is installed above the principal door in the church's entrance.” At St. Denis, the Jesse window is still located at the east end of the church in the ambulatory chapel.
Abbot Suger sought to bring the light of God into the darkened world to uplift the congregation. A substantial amount of literature exists about the Abbot bringing Pseudo-Dionysian thinking about the mystical power of light to the church, especially the church of St. Denis. The poem in his book of administration written for the front doors of the church summarize this thinking.
All you who seek to honor (or extoll) these doors,
Marvel not at the gold and expense but at the
craftsmanship of the work.
The noble work is bright, but, being nobly bright, the work
Should brighten the minds, allowing them to travel through the lights
To the true light, where Christ is the true door.
The place of origin of the “master(s)” who made the Jesse Tree window has been the subject of speculation though at least some came from Burgundy since scholars have suggested a stylistic similarity between the figures in the Jesse Tree window and illuminated manuscripts made at the Cistercian Abbey of Cîteaux. No one answer though has been found to be satisfactory since some scholars point to similarities in sculpture more than illuminated manuscripts as the source for the windows. The matter is still one of scholarly investigation. 
The single lancet Jesse Tree window has surviving examples in France before it crossed the channel to England. The earliest Jesse Tree window at Canterbury Cathedral bears much similarity to the window at St. Denis and Chartres.
 Abbot Suger: On what was done in his Administration. Medieval Sourcebook. Fordham Univerisity. http://legacy.fordham.edu/halsall/source/sugar.html
 Hayward, Jane. "Stained Glass at Saint-Denis." In Sumner McK. Crosby, ed. The Royal Abbey of St.-Denis in the Time of Abbot Suger (1122-1151). New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art (1981): 61-71.
 John F. Benton. Introduction: Suger’s Life and Personality in Paula L. Gerson, ed. Abbot Suger and Saint-Denis: A Symposium (1986) Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York: Harry N. Abrams.
 Abbot Suger: On what was done in his Administration. Medieval Sourcebook. Chapter 34. Fordham University. http://legacy.fordham.edu/halsall/source/sugar.html
 For example: Michael Cothren. Picturing the Celestial City: The Medieval Stained Glass of Beauvais Cathedral. (2006), Princeton: Princeton University Press, pp.71-96. Also Madeline Caviness. "Suger's Glass at Saint-Denis: The State of Research," in Paula L Gerson, ed. Abbot Suger and Saint-Denis: A Symposium, (1986) New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art. pp.257-72.
 Abbot Suger: On what was done in his Administration. Medieval Sourcebook. Fordham University. chapter 27 http://legacy.fordham.edu/halsall/source/sugar.html
 Nolan, Kathleen, "Arts of the Medieval Cathedrals: Studies on Architecture, Stained Glass, and Sculpture in Honor of Anne Prache" (2015). Books by Hollins Faculty. Book 78.
http://digitalcommons.hollins.edu/facbooks/78. Madeline H. Caviness. Suger’s Glass at St. Denis: The State of Research in Paula L. Gerson, ed. Abbot Suger and Saint-Denis: A Symposium. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. (1986) New York: Henry N. Abrams, Inc. Hayward, Jane. "Stained Glass at Saint-Denis." In Sumner Crosby, ed. The Royal Abbey of St.-Denis in the Time of Abbot Suger (1122-1151). New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art (1981): 61-71.