Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Sources and Samples, an appeal to the gentle reader.

Before I post some single lancet French Jesse Tree windows from the 12th and 13th centuries, a comment is needed on the sources of these pictures.  When I began looking at Jesse Tree stained glass windows, not especially systematically 20 years ago, there were very few sources.  There were two standard texts: (1)Arthur Watson, The Early Iconography of the Tree of Jesse. (1934) London: Oxford University Press, and (2) Emile Mâle. Religious Art in France-The Twelfth Century. A Study of the Origins of Medieval Iconography.(1978) Princeton: Princeton University Press.  Some travel books and art books in the university libraries included the occasional picture in color and scholarly journals generally had black and white photographs and drawings. 

The internet has changed everything.  It has allowed the publication of tens of thousands of pictures of stained glass windows.  Some of these sites are maintained by individuals such as Painton Cowen’s Therosewindow.com.  Others are maintained by groups such as the Corpus Vitrearum Medii Aevi of Great Britain.  This groups has made a substantial contribution to the field by systematically publishing images of medieval stained glass.  Sometimes one finds specialized websites such as Stained Glass in Wales < http://stainedglass.llgc.org.uk/> or Norfolk and Norwich Stained Glass from Medieval to Modern < http://www.norfolkstainedglass.co.uk/>.  University and national even regional libraries are publishing their collections so that scholars and interested individuals can look at examples from their holdings.  I would not have gotten very far without such resources as the British Library, as well as libraries in the Netherlands and France.  These digitalized manuscripts are especially helpful in examining illuminations and texts from the 800s to the beginning of printed books.  Fine examples from museums can be seen.  The Metropolitan Museum of New York and the Cloisters, as well as the Victoria and Albert Museum, among many others have fine collections of medieval treasures.  Travelers and travel websites include pictures of churches and glass so that all can look and learn.  Since I have found so many sources to be so rich in material, I try to be as accurate as I can in citing the source so that those who have worked hard to assemble the material have credit.  Besides I want to point the interested reader to places to learn more.  So I need a gentle reader appeal.  If you spot a reference that is missing or incorrect, please let me know.

Perhaps it is my training in the biological sciences.  I never was satisfied with the idea that the Gothic period in art and architecture began de novo in Ile-de-France in 1140 without reference to developments in Romanesque period and earlier styles and techniques.  The depiction of a Jesse Tree may have spread widely during the Gothic period but it clearly had roots that extended back into much earlier ways of depicting bible stories.  

When one looks backward and well as forward, one is faced with an issued of sampling.  We have no inventory of Jesse Tree stained glass windows in churches in France and the United Kingdom.  We have no idea how big the universe of Jesse Tree windows was when we look at the selection that has survived 500-900 years.  We have a sample based on survival. Mostly we cannot know what was lost. 

There is another bias introduced into any discussion of surviving examples.  Not all windows or manuscripts have been identified and published for researchers to look at and sample.  It is far more likely that the mostly lovely or visually appealing or unique or in some way attractive to the photographer and publisher are the windows that I can look at and discuss.  Thus it is impossible to know what biases this introduces when I try to make a generalization about a type or style.

Many historical events and changes in attitude and taste resulted in the destruction of stained glass windows.  War contributed in part to the rebuilding of churches and abbeys that lead to the production of new stained glass windows such as the Jesse Tree.  The series of conflicts  referred to as the Hundred Years War between France and England (1337-1453) cause substantial damage in northern and western France.  The rebuilding in the 15th century introduced new styles to the Jesse Tree that are radically different from the static frontal posed windows of the 12th and 13th century.  

When the Reformation reached France, the Wars of Religion erupted from 1562-1598.  The land remained unsettled until the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 settled the wars in the lands north, south, and east of France.  Part of what the treaty did was to reinforce the Treaty of Augsburg (1555) that each prince would establish the religion, Protestant or Roman Catholic, for each state (cuius regio, eius religio).  The Wars of Religion in France were a period of iconoclasm such that many religious windows were destroyed.  But the damage from the Wars of Religion was never as great as the destruction of windows during the French Revolution.  Windows within the reach of stones and pikes and tools of the mobs were broken.  Thus it is not uncommon to find a partial Jesse Tree window where the figure of Jesse and a couple of prophets are missing as in the Cathédrale Saint-Gervais-et-Saint-Protais de Soissons.

Note the missing Jesse from the bottom panels of the Jesse Tree window at the Cathedral of St. Gervase and St. Protase at Soissons.

Though efforts were made to remove or protect stained glass windows during World War I and World War II, both wars contributed further to the loss of medieval glass.

In England, there were two periods of iconoclasm with extensive window destruction. The first occurred during the Dissolution of the Abbeys from 1536-1541 as ordered by Henry VIII as he established the Church of England and raided the resources of the abbeys to fill his coffers.  The second happened  during the English Civil War and Parliamentary rule period (1642-1660). Parliamentary ordinances passed August 28, 1643 and May 9, 1644 ordered the removal from churches of all “monuments of superstition or idolatry.”  Among the targets were altars, altar rails, chancel steps, inscriptions imploring prayers on behalf of the dead, crucifixes, images of the Trinity, the Virgin Mary, saints, and angels.  The August 28, 1643 law was the “Ordinance for demolishing superstitions images, etc., and removing Communion Tables from the East End of Churches, before 1 November 1643.” On May 9, 1644, Parliament passed “Further Ordinance for the demolition of monuments of Idolatry and Superstition in Churches.”  Some of the  reason for the ordinances was a reaction to Archbishop William Laud’s policies that were seen by many, not just Puritans, as a re-Catholicization of the United Kingdom.  One man charged with the destruction of the idolatrous windows was William Dowsing.  He kept a detailed journal of the 273 churches he visited, what he found, what was destroyed, and how much he charged for the removal of the offending windows and architecture in Suffolk, Norfolk, and Cambridgeshire.  This journal is reprinted.[1] 

Since Jesse Tree windows were often found in churches or chapels dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary, the windows were removed or destroyed to try to rid the United Kingdom of what appeared to be idolatrous worship of Mary. The cost of replacing large expanses of colored glass even if the replacement was only clear glass undoubtedly acted as a restraint on the destruction of whole windows. Hence one finds figures without heads but otherwise intact. There are stories of windows removed and hidden. Sometimes it was centuries before the windows were replaced after being found in attics and barns. Glass and lead were expensive to make and replace. In England there are a number of examples of parts of windows that were reused.

Churches were damaged in World War I and World War II in England. During war, window were lost from bombs and fire. Repairs and replacements have continued into the 21st century.

Another destroyer of stained glass is time, pollution, fungi, and corrosion. Corrosion damages the glass and the painting on the glass, and corrosion weakens the iron bars holding the windows as well as the lead came holding the glass in place. Finally, there were events such as riots, fires, and vandalism. Vandalism has continued to be a problem to date resulting in broken and destroyed windows.

Perhaps even more destructive than these forces was indifference. During the 18th century, medieval stained glass was out of style. Rectors and parishioners no longer liked the old glass and so it was removed. It was not until the mid-19th century when interest in the Gothic style revived that the old glass windows were once again admired.

Along with damage, deliberate destruction and removal, the other enemy of medieval stained glass, was movement. The glass would be moved between windows in the same church or between churches. More about this later.

It has been a common practice to collect fragments of colored and painted glass from old windows and reassemble the pieces into a new composition. This is why all or almost all of the Jesse windows in the United Kingdom are restored or reconstructed, most often in the 19th century, with vintage and new glass replacing what has been lost or damaged beyond repair.

The work of repair is still continuing, sometimes to replace improper work from the 19th century. Major conservations projects are continuing to be needed into the 21st century. One recent example in the restoration of the Jesse Tree window in the Cathedral at Wells.

[1] Trevor Cooper, ed. The Journal of William Dowsing: Iconoclasm in East Anglia during the English Civil War. (2001)Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell Press.


  1. What a wonderful job you are doing with this blog, pulling together so many sources. Apart from the windows, there now seems to be so much to research out there among the digitized illuminated manuscripts. I have been searching for images of embroidered altar-cloths: there is a fine Tree of Jesse themed one on display at the Grassi Museum in Leipzig, Germany. But the textiles do not seem to be very present on the internet.

    Would you send me an email note?

  2. I have never researched textiles for Jesse Tree images though I have come across several while doing other research. Having served on an altar guild for many years,I have seen my share of liturgical fabrics just wear out from use. The fabric and embroidery fray. The fabric itself can become brittle and tears easily. So it surprises me every time I see a fabric or fabric fragment with a Jesse Tree image. The Victoria and Albert Museum, London, have fragments from a cope and chasuble. The Index of Christian Art (Princeton University) has a beautiful French example from Lyons, France Musée des Tissus. This last example has rough-cut wood green cross crucifixion as part of the Jesse Tree. I do not know the altar cloth that you mention in the Grassi Museum.