Thursday, August 13, 2015

The Single Lancet Jesse Tree Window in France: Reading a Jesse Tree Window, Part A

        I am beginning my review of single lancet French Jesse Tree windows of the 12th century onward by discussing how one reads a Jesse Tree window from both bottom up ( Jesse, King David, other kings) and top down, (Christ in Majesty, the Blessed Virgin Mary, then kings). Often people think of Jesse Tree windows as picture books for the illiterate. But that cannot be the full story since many were made of abbey churches and other places where the most likely persons to see the windows were at least modestly literate monks and clergy. Jesse windows are often found at the east end of churches and in Lady's Chapels where clergy would have been the primary viewers of the window.

     I have mentioned that the persons in a Jesse Tree, whether illuminated or in glass, can be identified by position within the tree, accompanying symbols, accompanying scrolls or banderoles, or even names written near the figure. In the Jesse Tree window, the identification of the persons in the window is important for the understanding of the window. 

     The bottom panel or panels of a Jesse Tree from the 12th through the mid-15th century is/are occupied by the recumbent or reclining Jesse, asleep usually in a bed. This sleeping Jesse evokes both Jacob’s dream and the sleep of Adam when Eve was formed from Adam’s rib by God as told in the second creation story, Genesis 2.4-24. Sometimes the “rib of Adam” image is enforced with the tree or vine growing from Jesse’s side. At other times, the tree seems to grow from the loins of Jesse, a reference to the "begats" of Matthew 1. When Jesse is lying down, Jesse sometimes appears in multiple panels, especially as the Jesse Trees enlarged from single lancet windows to multiple panels. After the mid-15th century through the 16th century, Jesse is found nodding off while seated on a chair or throne. The seated Jesse is revived in the 19th century neo-gothic windows.

     The prophets and patriarchs were most often identified by scrolls or banderoles, and something by names. If there is no written identification of the prophet or patriarch or other ancient person, their identification is nearly impossible since the order and placement of prophets, patriarchs, and priests of the Old Testament was never standardized in Jesse Tree windows.

     Symbols identified the kings. In the Angers cathedral  window (Cathedral of St. Maurice, Angers, Maine-et-Loire, France)  the king of Judah above Jesse is playing a harp, and therefore is King David. The second king of Judah above Jesse is holding a scepter. This is sometimes the symbol for King Solomon. The third king of Judah above Jesse is playing a vielle, the symbol often associated but not always with Solomon since he was considered the author of the Song of Solomon or Canticum Canticorum
.  Other iconographic symbols include a book or a model of a church for the Temple of Jerusalem. [Note: French scholars seem to refer to the bowed waisted instrument that I call a vielle, a "rote."  Rote refers to a Welsh stringed instrument that looks more like a lyre.]

     As an aside, the vielle was a bowed 5-string instrument that may or may not have been waisted like a violin. The vielle is related to the rebec and Bysantine lyras that have three to five strings. Among the descendats of the vielle is the viol and later the violin and viola. Vielles were played either on the shoulder or the lap.

Since the 13th century Jesse Tree window of the Cathedral of St. Maurice, Angers, France is hard to see because of  corrosion of the glass, I have included details of the upper panels from Christ in majesty at the top to David with harp at the bottom, skipping one unidentified King of Judah.  Note King David with harp, King Solomon with scepter and unidentified king with unwaisted vielle
Photo credit: Dr. Stuart Whatling
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     Scholars have noted that the window panels at Angers have been rearranged in the past. And thus, it is quite possible that the order of the kings were re-arranged in error at some point. Boulanger in her study of the windows at Angers states that the Jesse Tree window in the choir is one of eleven windows made between 1230-35. The cathedral was wealthy enough that it did not depend on secular donors, and thus there was great unity in the style and iconography of the windows. (Karine Boulanger. Les vitraux de la cathédrale d'Angers (2010) Paris: CTHS.) The stained glass at Angers cathedral, made in the 12th, 13th, and 15th centuries, suffered through periods of restoration and repair and long centuries of neglect. It is possible to speculate that during one of these 
restorations the panel of Solomon and a generic king of Judah with scepter were reversed. (David King. Angers Cathedral, Vidimus 48 (Feb. 2011, <>

     There is a similar orders of the kings of Judah in the Jesse Tree window of Amiens Cathedral. 

1 comment:

  1. Ms. Author, thank you so much for sharing your research in this generous way. I read this article with great interest - having been Googling casually for Davids in Jesse Tree windows - and I look forward to reading through the rest of this blog.

    Again, thank you for this wonderful resource. It looks like you are no longer updating this project, but I hope you see this comment regardless and are pleased to learn that your work continues to be appreciated.

    - Elizabeth