Sunday, September 27, 2015

A Break-Embroidery Jesse Tree from the 14th century

          This short post is a brief response to JBP who is researching textiles with Jesse Tree images.  I have not systematically looked at fabrics for Jesse Tree images.  Despite their extraordinary beauty, liturgical fabrics are very perishable.  Though most of the fabric is silk or linen with metallic threads, these fabrics are frequently used and become soiled, frayed, worn, and are subject to changes in style, even if style changes are generally slow.  These garments, covers, and cloths are ephemeral.

         The ecclesiastical pictorial embroidery is called opus angelicanum (English work).  It was extremely popular from the mid 13th century-mid 14th century in Europe.  Most of it was made by professional embroiderers in London.  An article about Opus Anglicanum on the Victoria and Albert Museum website commented that  an 1295 Vatican Inventory listed over 100 examples.  < .

        This first is a cope in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. This particular cope was made about 1295-1315.  It was cut-up, perhaps to serve another purpose such as an altar cloth or frontal, and it was reassembled by the museum.  In this Jesse Tree presentation, the names of the figures are embroidered, allowing for identification of kings and prophets.. This is appended to the pictures on the website:

     ... copes of red samite decorated with the Tree of Jesse are frequently mentioned
          in the reigns of Henry III and Edward I.. There was one at St Paul's Cathedral
          in 1245; Bishop Middleton of Norwich (1278-88) gave one to Canterbury,
         and Bishop Bitton (1292-1307) gave one to Exeter. Stylistically, this example
         is related to the Vatican cope in the Museo Sacro of the Vatican Library, Rome,
         the copes of Saint Bertrand de Comminges, and the John of Thanet panel
         (V&A T.337-1921).

 The figures in the cope were apparently arranged in the round half-circle cope.  The top of the Jesse Tree is the Virgin Mary seated with Jesus as a toddler.
< .

Crowned and seated Virgin Mary with a gold nimbus holding a standing toddler, Jesus.  Jesus is holding his right hand in a gesture of blessing.  He has a cross nimbus.

 Old Testament prophet wearing a pointed yellow Jewish cap. I cannot quite read the name but the banderole contains the contraction PPHE for prophet.

Jesse reclining with a grape vine arising from his thigh.  Above him is King David playing his harp.

             The next item is also from the Victorian and Albert Museum.  It is an orphrey, the name given to the vertical bands of cloth that can be attached to a chasuble, dalmatic, or cope.  This particular piece of opus angelicanum has made about 1310-1340.
Detail of King David playing a harp

Detail of the Virgin Mary dressed as an elegant young queen.  She appears to be holding a piece of fruit in her right hand. (Perhaps this is based on the apocryphal legend that is the basis of the Cherry Tree carol.)  St. Mary is without a nimbus.  The toddler sized Jesus is seated in her lap holding his right hand up in blessing. 

       The Cleveland Museum of Art has part of an orphrey band made about 1350.  The fragment of the Jesse Tree has three kings of Judah enclosed within a grape vine, a reference to the Holy Eucharist. The figures are identified as Achim, Ezechias, and Eliud.  The kings are seated on the tendrils of the grape vine.

         The fourth item I will mention is from the Musee des Tissus, Lyon, France. It appears to be an orphrey that perhaps was attached to a chasuble. It was made in England, probably London, from 1315-1335.  At the bottom is a reclining Jesse.  Above him is King David playing a harp.  Then there is another king before the seated Virgin Mary holding a toddler Jesus. This orphrey is topped by a rough cut green wooden cross crucifixion scene with St. Mary and St. John.  The vine is a grape vine. The panel is a mirror image of the usual arrangement of figures for a Jesse Tree.

         The Metropolitan Museum of Art has a Jesse Tree orphrey in its collection that appears to be both prophets and kings holding on to a grape vine.  It is dated 1350-1375.  The style of embroidery is similar to the piece in the Cleveland Museum of Art.


          The embroidered Jesse Trees are very similar in style to the illuminated manuscripts of the same period.  One can say that the embroidered Jesse Trees are an extension of manuscript illumination.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Jesse Tree Wood: Trunk, Vine, Leaves, Flowers, and Fruit-Part 5

            I have been trying to tell a story with several threads.  The first thread is the link of life and death, Annunciation and Passion (and Crucifixion).[1]  The second is the somewhat orderly spread of church history written, like the gospels, first written in Greek, than translated to Latin, and then vernacular.  The third is the importance of the wood of the Cross, especially contemplation on Forgiveness of Sin, Redemption, Salvation and Life of the world to come.  Unfortunately that second thread is about to be cut as I come to the 8th century in England.  I failed to take into account for the spread of information by oral tradition including song, poetry, and story.  When I get to the Dream of the Rood, it was oral traditions that spread the poem hundreds of years before the scant textual record.
         At this point, I feel as though I am an interloper in a beautiful and well-tended academic garden founded on research of Old English poetry, especially Dream of the Rood.  Not only am I an interloper, I am one who really does not know the difference between specimen flower and lowly weed.  So I will do my best to tread carefully and try not to misstate the work of many fine scholars.  Yet I remember struggling with a modern English translation of Dream of the Rood in an English literature class somewhat over 50 years ago and thinking that it reminded me of a hymn sung in church. I never gave that passing thought any more consideration.  Only many years later while reading an article by Catherine Karkov or Éamonn Ó Carragáin in the Lilly Library at Duke University did the recollection of that class pop into my mind.  Since the subject is wood, it seemed appropriate to pull together the association of Pange Lingua with Dream of the Rood and a discussion about the origins of the wood and vine symbols that are the foundation of a Jesse Tree.
           I thought of a couple of verses from one of my favorite hymns, the Good Friday hymn, Pange Lingua.  The poem was written by Venantius Fortunatus.  Fortunatus was born in Venetia, Italy, studied at Ravenna apparently, and eventually moved to the Merovingian Court at Metz about 566.  In mid-life or later, he settled in Poitiers, and he became bishop there for a short period before he died in 600 or some years later at Poitiers.  Fortunatus was a prolific writer and poet.  Two of his poems for the Cross used during Holy Week have survived including Pange lingua gloriosi proelium certaminis et super crucis trophaeo dic triumphum nobilem (Sing my tongue the glorious battle)  and Vexilla regis prodeunt, fulget crucis mysterium (The royal banners forward go)In particular, I was thinking of the verses from Pange lingua gloriosi proelium certaminis as translated by John Mason Neale and modified for the Hymnal 1982.

4. Faithful cross! above all other,
one and only noble tree!
None in foliage, none in blossom,
none in fruit thy peer may be:
sweetest wood and sweetest iron!
sweetest weight is hung on thee.

5. Bend thy boughs, O tree of glory!
Thy relaxing sinews bend;
for awhile the ancient rigor
that thy birth bestowed, suspend;
and the King of heavenly beauty
gently on thine arms extend.

In the original Latin, the verses are:

Crux fidelis,inter omnes arbor una nobilis;
nulla talem silva profert, flore, fronde, germine.
Dulce lignum, dulci clavo, dulce pondus sustinens!

Flecte ramos, arbor alta, tensa laxa viscera,
et rigor lentescat ille, quem dedit nativitas,
ut superni membra Regis miti tendas stipites

Sola digna tu fuisti ferre pretium saeculi
atque portum praeparare nauta mundo naufrago,
quem sacer cruor perunxit, fusus Agni corpore.[2]

Below is a rather more literal translation, if less poetic translation:

Faithful[3] Cross, you only noble among all trees,
no other forest (wood) produces flower, foliage, fruits (seeds or increase)
Sweet wood, sweet nails, sweet weight-bearing.

Bend your branches, tall tree, loosen tight fibers (literally “guts” but can be “internal organs.”)
And soften the rigidity from your birth
Bend your limbs to gently support the King.

Thou alone were worthy to bear the ransom of the world
And prepare for the landing of a shipwrecked sailor
That sacred blood poured from the Lamb’s body.
          The poem by Venantius Fortunatus, Pange Lingua, would seem to pre-date the oldest version of the poem Dream of the Rood found in runic writing on the Ruthwell Cross.  Ó Carragáin has pointed out that the Pange Lingua is not a source for the Dream of the Rood since there are significant difference in the two poems but both have their roots in the Gospels, Epistles of Paul, and the Holy Eucharist.[4]  An example of an early Eucharistic hymn could well be the following verses from Colossians 1.15-29 that certainly reads as a hymn exalting Jesus Christ and the reconciliation of all things through the blood of Christ.  Poetry like this heard by clergy, monks, nuns, and minor orders of clergy with regularity would have served as inspiration for the writing of poetry such as Dream of the Rood. (Translation below NRSV.)

He is the image of the invisible God,
       the firstborn of all creation;
for by him all things in heaven and on earth were created,
       things visible and invisible,
       whether thrones or dominions
       or rulers  or powers—
       all things have been created through him and for him.
He himself is before all things,
      and by him all things hold together.
He is the head of the body, the church;
       he is the beginning,
       the firstborn from the dead,
       so that he might come
       to have first place in everything.
For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,
       and through him God was pleased
       to reconcile to himself all things,
       whether on earth or in heaven,
by making peace through the blood of his cross.

To pick up on the theme of the revelation of the buried cross as told in the stories of Helen and the finding of the cross, one may look to verses such as these from the synoptic gospels (All translations are NSRV):

     Matthew 13.44. ‘The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which
     someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys
     that field.[5]

     Mark 4.21-3 He said to them, ‘Is a lamp brought in to be put under the bushel basket,
     or under the bed, and not on the lampstand?  For there is nothing hidden, except
     to be disclosed; nor is anything secret, except to come to light.  Let anyone with ears
     to hear listen!’

     Luke 8.167. ‘No one after lighting a lamp hides it under a jar, or puts it under a bed,
     but puts it on a lampstand, so that those who enter may see the light.  For nothing is
     hidden that will not be disclosed, nor is anything secret that will not become known
     and come to light.

Or the reference to Moses lifting up the bronze serpent to heal the Hebrews in the desert from the gospel of John:

     John 3.14-5. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must
     the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”[6]

            The other thread that needs to be tied in is the runic inscription around the Ruthwell High Cross. The Ruthwell Cross is a large standing cross, made in Anglo-Saxon Northumbria in the 8th century.  The cross now stands in a church in Dumfriesshire, south-west Scotland.  It probably was an outdoor preaching cross for conversion of the still pagan peoples.  Another scholars has suggested that the cross was the central supporting posting of a church (Meyvaert). Thus the congregation were quite literally under the protection of the Cross-tree. The cross includes texts in Latin that would have been understood by the clergy and runes. These appear on the sides of the cross with biblical carvings.   The runic writing appears of the sides of the cross with vine and animals. The Ruthwell Cross stood near the present church until 1644 when it was pulled down and smashed on the instructions of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland because it was idolatrous.  It was re-erected in the 19th century in the manse garden of the Ruthwell church.  In 1887, the cross was moved to a specially built apse in the church.

 An etching of the sides of the lower shaft of the Ruthwell Cross. It shows more clearly the rune writing than a usual photograph. It shows the missing runes.  Note that the birds and animals are eating the fruit of the vine-tree, a symbol of the Holy Eucharist.

The cross is so tall that it is standing in a well below the floor level.  When the cross was reconstructed much of the top of the cross was never found and so a transom was re-carved. This is a photograph of the east face of the cross that now faces to the south.  For details of the panels see the table below.

            The lower shaft of the north and south faces contain lines of poetry as well as scrolled vines with flowers, fruit, and animals that can visually be linked to the development of Jesse Tree design. It is this link that is my primary interest.  The vines and fruit represent the Garden of Eden and the Holy Eucharist (and by extension the sacrificial death of Jesus for our sins) for Christians.  For the pagans it presented the Tree of Life of Norse and Germanic mythology or Yggdrasil, the giant ash tree (or the yew tree associated with Odin/Wotan).  The vine-tree links heaven and earth, the spiritual and the concrete to both pagans and Christians and so would have been a useful tool for conversion to Christianity of the pagan tribes of Northumbria.
         Some of the rune letters are missing and it was found that the missing letters could be supplied from Dream of the Rood.  The runes spell out an older version of some verses from Dream of the Rood, some two to three hundred years before the surviving complete poem.  The complete poem that survives dates from the later 10th or 11th century and is found in the Vercelli Book.  Another poem from this book is Elene, the story of Helen and the finding of the True Cross.

          For a beta version of the Visionary Cross project that presents the details of the Ruthwell cross in stunningly high definition and readability, go to <> . I cannot post any pictures as clear as those at the Visionary Cross project website. All the transcriptions of text and translations are taken from the Visionary Cross website. 

            The runic inscription on the north face of the Ruthwell Cross is in the Old English language. It reads: (across the top) [+ ond]gere; (down the right side) dæ hinæ god almeittig · þa hewalde on galgu gistigamodig f[ore] [allæ] men [b]ug … [ahof] ic riicnæ kyniŋc · heafunæs hlafard hælda ic ni dorstæ [b]ismærædu uŋket men ba æt[g]ad[re i]c [wæs] miþ blodi bist[e]mi[d] bi[got][en of þæs gumu sida]… 
Translation: ‘Almighty God stripped himself when he wished to mount the gallows, brave in the sight of all men. I dared not bow. I [raised aloft] a powerful king. The Lord of heaven I dared not tilt.  Men insulted the pair of us together. I was drenched with blood [begotten from that man’s side].

            The other runic inscription across the south face reads: (across the top) [+k]ris[t] wæs on; (down the right side) rodi · hweþræ þer fusæ fearran kwomu æþþilæ til anum ic þæt al bi[h][eald] s[aræ] ic w[æ]s · mi[þ] so[r]gu[m] gi[d]rœ[fi]d h[n]a[g]…; (down the left side) miþ s[t]re[l]um giwundad alegdun hiæ [h]inæ limwœrignæ· gistoddu[n h]im [æt] [his] [li][c]æs [hea]f[du]m [bih]ea[ld]u[n h]i[æ þ]e[r]… 
Translation: + Christ was on the cross. But eager ones came hither from afar. Noble ones came together. I beheld all that. I was terribly afflicted with sorrows. I bowed [to the hands of men], wounded with arrows. They laid him down, limb-weary; they stood at the shoulders of the corpse. They looked upon the Lord [of heaven].


            The east and west face contain carved panels with Latin inscriptions that would have been understandable by clergy and monastics.  All text below are taken from the Visionary Cross project website.

East face of lower shaft
West face of lower shaft
Archer with drawn bow
St. Matthew, the evangelist, holding
book and standing with winged angel.
The Visitation or
Mary and Martha.
Text reads: […] marþ[a] (left border);
mar[ia] m[…]r + (top border);
dominnæ c[…] (right border).
The words have been translated as either
‘Martha and Mary worthy women’, or
perhaps ‘Martha and Mary,
mother of the Lord’.
John the Baptist holding the Lamb of God.
He stands on two globes.
In the lower section of the left border
are the words ‘[…] [A]DORAMVS
(we adore), and across the lower
border ‘VT NON CVM […]’ (so that not with).
Source is not known.
Jesus Christ standing with his right hand (now lost) held up in blessing. Mary Magdalene is at his feet.
The Latin inscription surrounding
the panel reads: + A[TT]V[LIT]
[ALA]B[A]S (across the top);
(down the right side); · EIUS LACRIMIS ·
CAPILLIS (down the left side) ·
CAPITIS SUI TERGEBAT (across the bottom).
Translation: ‘+ She took an alabaster jar of
ointment, and standing behind at his feet,
she began to wash his feet with her tears
and dried them with the hair of her head’.
Jesus Christ stands on the snouts of two beasts.  The beasts have crossed front paws, forming a “X” or chi.
The inscriptions read: + IhS XPS IVDEX (across the top) · AEQVITATIS · (down the right side); BESTIAE · ET · DRACON[ES] · COGNOVERVNT · IN DE ·
MVNDI · (down the left side). Translation: ‘+ Jesus Christ, judge of equity. Beasts and dragons recognised in the desert the savior of the world’. There is no one source. But the words recalls both Psalm 90/91:13 (Thou shalt walk upon the asp and the basilisk: and thou shalt trample
under foot the lion and the dragon), and Habbakuk 3:2 (Between two living things you will become known).[7]
Healing of the man born blind.
The Latin inscription in the border reads:
(down the left side) {HOMINEM CAECVM}
 (down the right side).
Translation: ‘+ And passing by he saw a
{man blind} from birth and {healed him}’
Saints Paul and Anthony break bread together in the desert.  They face each other with their bodies turned outward.  Between them, they hold a loaf of bread that had been miraculously delivered by a raven.  The arms of the saints form an “X.”
The Latin inscription that surrounds the panel reads: + SCS PAVLVS · (across the top); ET · A[NTONIVS] […] (down the right side); FREGER[VN]T · PANEM IN DESERTO (down the left side). Translation: ‘+ Saints Paul and Anthony […] broke bread in the desert’.  It describes an episode recorded in Jerome’s Life of St. Paul.
The Annunciation, Angel Gabriel
 and Virgin Mary All that remains of the
inscription in the border are the letters
‘+ INGRESSVS ANG’ (across the top border),
and ‘TE […] BE (down the left border).
It has been reconstructed as ‘Ingressus angelus
ad eam dixit ave gratia plena dominus
tecum benedicta tu in mulieribus’
(Entering the angel said to her:
“Hail full of grace, the Lord is with you;
blessed are you among women”.)
Flight into Egypt (or out of Egypt)
The Virgin Mary is seated side saddle on a donkey holding the Christ child upright.  The panel is very worn. There may be a tree and part of the figure of Joseph.
The Latin inscription in the border reads: + MARIA · ET IO[SEPHUS] […] TV […]. Translation: ‘+ Mary and Joseph …’
The Crucifixion, carved at a later date,
Perhaps 9th century, and now very worn.
Base is now blank.  It is not known if it was carved and since lost or never carved.

Next is a discussion of Ruthwell Cross and Dream of the Rood.

[1] Éamonn Ó Carragáin. Ritual and the Rood: Liturgical Images and the Old English Poems of the Dream of the Rood Tradition. (2005) London: The British Library, pp. 183-8.  O Carragain pointed out that the Annunciation and Passion were firmly linked in the Roman Catholic Church liturgy of the 4th century when the Annunciation, March 25, would fall in the middle of Holy Week.  The Annunciation is still celebrated on March 25 but Holy Week is now moveable based on the first full moon of the spring equinox set as March 21.
[2]Thesaurus Precum Latinarum  Pange Lingua (Fortunatus) Sing, my Tongue  <>
[3] A Clerk of Oxford prefers STEADFAST in Middle English instead of FAITHFUL that comes to us from Middle French and Latin.  Please read a delightful blog upon the same hymn
[4] Éamonn Ó Carragáin. Ritual and the Rood: 7.,
[5] This passage used to be used for the gospel reading on Holy Cross Day, September 14.
[6] This is part of the passage that the Revised Common Lectionary assigns for Holy Cross Day.
[7] Habakkuk 3 is often referred to as the Prayer or Canticle of Habakkuk.  This chapter only appears in the Revised Common Lectionary for the fifth Sunday of Epiphany, year A, for the Episcopal Church, though it is usually superseded by a reading from Isaiah.  Thus, it is rarely if ever, heard in the western Church.  It used to be a standard part of the Hours read daily by laypersons and monastics alike.  So the Bible passage would have been reasonably familiar.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Jesse Tree Wood: Trunk, Vine, Leaves, Flowers, and Fruit-Part 4

[Apology to the reader:  I wrote these last four parts in MSWord so I could include footnotes and other formatting that I have not figured out how to do just using the blog mode.  If I do not keep each segment relatively short, I find the text starts to move around and do odd things that I had not told it to do. The text and the accompanying pictures seemed unstable.  So I had to break up what was intended as two longish blogs into four parts and there is still more to come. Of course, if anyone wishes to tell me what to do, I will gladly listen.  Thank you. ]

Crucifixion of Jesus of left topologically linked to the dream of Nebuchadnezzar about the great tree and was to be cut down.  This woodcut from a Biblia Pauperum was a reflection of the understanding that the felling of the great tree was prefiguring the redemptive death of Jesus.

Continued from previous blog:

      It is in this time period that one finds the first representation of the Crucifixion of Jesus.  Three images are presented below.  The earliest two depictions of the crucifixion were for private use.  The crucifixion scene on the door of Santa Sabrina in Rome is dated to the 6th century but not with as much certainty as the church itself.[17]

Carnelian engraved intaglio. 3-4th century, recovered in Constanta, Romania.  Inscription damaged, probably, ΙΧΘΥΣ or ICHTHYS.  The 12 figures probably represent the  apostles.  British Museum 1895,1113.1
Panel from an ivory casket: the Crucifixion of Christ
Ivory panel made in Rome about 420-430 CE now in the British Museum. 1856,0623.5  It is one of four panels that covered the sides of a small box. (Maskell ivories) On the left Judas is hanging from a tree with the spilled bag of coins.  To his right are St. Mary and St. John.  On a tree branch bending toward the crucified but not suffering Jesus in a bird feeding his chicks, a symbol for Jesus as the Church feeding forgiveness to his followers.  On the far right is a figure traditionally identified as Longinus, the Roman soldier who pierced the side of Jesus.

Panel from wooden door of Santa Sabrina all'Aventino.  It represents Jesus crucified in the center and the two thieves on each side. The church was built about 425 CE in Rome during the pontificate of Pope Celestine I (422–433 CE.) and finished under the pontificate of Sixtus III (432–440 CE.) when the church was formally consecrated. 

            According to all the ecclesiastical histories, it was Constantine and his mother Empress Helena who ordered and funded the building of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.  The present Church of the Holy Sepulchre is the result of many reconstructions as the result of deliberate destruction, fire, earthquake, civil unrest, and neglect.  The current church bears little resemblance to the structure built by Constantine in the 4th century.  A plan of that church is useful in identifying the places in the church mentioned below, since the church covered the sites of the Crucifixion, removal of Jesus’ body from the cross, preparation for burial, burial site in the rock tomb, and the site of the Resurrection.  The church also covered the sites where the crosses were supposedly buried, subsequent destruction of the site with erection of pagan Roman temple under Emperor Hadrian, and the site where Empress Helena supposedly found three first century crosses.

1. Patriarchate
2. Rotunda-site of tomb and place of Resurrection
3. Edicule or room with the tomb
4. Garden courtyard
5. Calvary or Golgotha
6. Basilica or Martyrium
7. Atrium

            Depictions of the cross became more common as fragments of the cross became were dispersed around the known world.  Cyril of Jerusalem was the Bishop of Jerusalem from 350-386 with the exception of three periods of exile.  Cyril gave 23 lectures to those being prepared for baptism or shortly after baptism.  These were given in Jerusalem in the Martyrion, another early name for a place within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.  The lectures as written give us a number of references to the cross.  In Lecture IV, On the ten points of doctrine, Sec. 10, Cyril mentioned that the catechumens were assembled at Golgotha as he spoke.  (See the plan for the Church above.)  He mentioned the Cross and then commented, “the whole world has since been filled with pieces of the wood of the Cross.”[18]  In Lecture X On the Clause, and in One Lord Jesus Christ…, Sec 19. Cyril writes about testimonies bearing witness to Jesus Christ.  “The holy wood of the Cross bears witness, seen among us to this day, and from this place now almost filling the whole world, by means of those who in faith take portions from it.”[19]  Again in Lecture XIII, On the words Crucified and Buried, Sec. 4, Cyril wrote, "For though I should now deny it, here is Golgotha to confute me, near which we are now assembled; the wood of the Cross confutes me, which was afterwards distributed piecemeal from hence to all the world.  I confess the Cross, because I know of the Resurrection; for if, after being crucified, He had remained as He was, I had not perchance confessed it, for I might have concealed both it and my Master; but now that the Resurrection has followed the Cross, I am not ashamed to declare it.”[20]

            There is another 4th century reference to a presence of a wooden cross venerated by Christian pilgrims in Jerusalem.  It comes from the travelogue of a women, seemingly a well off and physically fit widow (though some have thought her a nun), who had the leisure and means to spend three years in the Holy Land.  Her name is not known but she is usually referred to as Egeria and her work as Peregrinatio Aetheriae or Itinerarium Egeriae.  She is thought to have come from southern France or Spain (Galacia). The date of the work is not certain but the early years of 380s are usually suggested.  Unfortunately her writings did not come to the present complete but missing beginning and ending.  Egeria describes in detail the services of the church in Jerusalem  In her description of the Veneration of the Cross during the Good Friday service, she wrote,

     Then a chair is placed for the bishop in Golgotha behind the Cross, which
     is now standing; the bishop duly takes his seat in the chair, and a table
    covered with a linen cloth is placed before him; the deacons stand round
    the table, and a silver-gilt casket is brought in which is the holy wood
    of the Cross. The casket is opened and (the wood) is taken out, and both
    the wood of the Cross and the title are placed upon the table. Now, when
    it has been put upon the table, the bishop, as he sits, holds the extremities
    of the sacred wood firmly in his hands, while the deacons who stand around
    guard it. It is guarded thus because the custom is that the people, both
    faithful and catechumens, come one by one and, bowing down at the table,
    kiss the sacred wood and pass through. And because, I know not when,
    someone is said to have bitten off and stolen a portion of the sacred wood,
    it is thus guarded by the deacons who stand around, lest anyone approaching
    should venture to do so again. And as all the people pass by one by one,
    all bowing themselves, they touch the Cross and the title, first with their
    foreheads and then with their eyes; then they kiss the Cross and pass
    through, but none lays his hand upon it to touch it.[21]

It is interesting to compare the itinerary of the nameless Bordeaux pilgrim who traveled to Jerusalem 50 years earlier in 333 CE.  This itinerary makes no mention of any cross, though the pilgrim notes that a church of "wondrous beauty" has been built, though other information about the consecration of the church would suggest that it was still being built at the time the Bordeaux pilgrim saw the church.  The pilgrim comments on the large cisterns, from which water is raised, presumably for baptism, outside the church as well as "bath" for baptizing infants.(<>)

            Sometime between 451 and 458, the date of his death, while Juvenal was Bishop of Jerusalem, Pope Leo I the Great wrote to him.  In letter CXXXIX, the pope wrote to the bishop about using associations with the places where he lived to strengthen his faith and the faith of his flock.  Pope Leo urged Patriarch Juvenal to make use of the sites at hand as aids for teaching the faith to new converts before Baptism.  Leo speaks of the true cross as calling out to Juvenal the truth of the Incarnation.[22]
        The Book of Pontiffs (Liber Pontificalis) tells about another fragment of the true cross recovered by Pope Sergius (reigned 687-701).  Sergius was from a Syrian family that had settled in Sicily.  He may have gone to Rome in response to Arab raids on Sicily though the island was not conquered by Muslims until about 900.  In a tarnished silver casket, Sergius found a gold and jeweled cross that contained a piece of wood.  In honor of this relic, the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross was and is celebrated on September 14th.[23]  That is also one of two dates for the consecration of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in 335 CE.  So, the story about finding a fragment of the True Cross may in fact reflect the fact that Sergius brought the eastern church celebration of the dedication of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to Rome.  The spread of the celebration of Holy Cross Day in the western Catholic Church dates to the 7th century.

Helen finding the True Cross. British Library Egerton MS 1070. f.91v.
From the Book of Hours of René of Anjou, Paris use, 15th century France.

            The fate of Jerusalem and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was stormy.  The Byzantine Empire was not able to keep control of Jerusalem, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and any wood identified as the “True Cross.”  In the 614 war between the Byzantines and Persians, the victorious Persian general Shahrbaraz looted the city and killed thousands of the Christian inhabitants.  He took the relic as a war souvenir to Ctesiphon, now a part of Bagdad.  The Byzantine Emperor Heraclius (d. 641) fought back and defeated the Persians in the Battle of Nineveh in 627.  He recovered the relic of the True Cross and returned it to Jerusalem in 630.  He carried the fragment of the "True Cross" dressed in humble clothes and walking in bare feet into Jerusalem.

Heraclius returned cross to Jerusalem in 630.  From Historia rerum in partibus transmarinis gestarum, in French, with continuation to 1231 by William of Tyre.   Manuscript is in British Library Royal 15 E I f.16. Made in souther Netherlands, Bruge about 1479-80.  Text in French. <>

       Sixteen or seventeen years later, Jerusalem was under siege by the army of Abu Ubaidah ibn al-Jarrah and the city led by Patriarch Sophronius capitulated in April 637 or 638.  Jerusalem remained under Muslin control until conquered by the Crusaders in 1099, during the First Crusade.  Less than 100 years later the Crusaders lost control after the disastrous Battle of Hattin in July 1187 against Saladin.  Within months of the battle of the horns of Hattin, Jerusalem surrendered to Saladin.  The wood of the True Cross was lost to the forces of Saladin and never recovered.
The loss of the Holy Cross.  British Library Royal 15 E I, f. f.433v.  William of Tyre, Historia rerum in partibus transmarinis gestarum, to 1231.Made in south Netherlands, Bruge, 1479-1480.


[1] Nicholas Orme. Medieval Children.(2001) New Haven: Yale University Press.
[2] Dittmann K, Grupe G. (2000) Biochemical and palaeopathological investigations on weaning and infant mortality
in the early Middle Ages. Anthropol Anz.;58(4):345-55. (This article looked at a site in southern Germany dated to 500-700 CE.)
[3] Hühne-Osterloh G. (1989) Causes of pediatric mortality in a medieval skeletal series  Anthropol Anz. Mar;47(1):11-25. A study in Schleswig in northern Germany found another peak in mortality for children aged 8-10 years, most probably because of inadequate nutrition in the face of more work burdens as children passed the age of 7 years and could contribute to the work the family need to sustain itself.
[4] Lewis ME and Gowland R. (2007)Brief and precarious lives: infant mortality in contrasting sites from medieval and post-medieval England (AD 850-1859) Am J Phys Anthropol. 134(1):117-29.  Pearson JA, Hedges REM, Molleson TI, Özbek M (2010) Exploring the relationship between weaning and infant mortality: an isotope case study from AşikliHöyük and Çayönü Tepesi. Am J Phys Anthropol 143: 448–457.
[5] Orme, p. 117.
[6] Orme, p. 117.
[7] Maureen Barry McCann Boulton.  Sacred Fictions of Medieval France.(2015) Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 100.
[8] <>
[9] <>
[10] <>
[11] <>
[12] Cambridge, Corpus Christi College Library MS 187 is an 11th century manuscript of Eusebius' Historia ecclesiastica, transl. by Rufinus.  There is a nearly identical text referred to as MS 184.  Both were from Christ Church Abbey, Canterbury. There is an online digital copy of the manuscript at: <>.
[13] Gneuss and LaPidge Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts (2014) p.544.
[14] For a detailed listed of places and dates see: Desiree Scholten, MA Thesis entitled The History of a Historia
Manuscript transmission of the Historia Ecclesiastica Tripartita by Epiphanius-Cassiodorus. University of Utrecht  <>
[15] Desiree Scholten, “Cassidorius’ Historica Tripartita before the earliest extant manuscripts” in Clemens Gantner, Rosamond McKitterick, Sven Meeder, ed. The Resources of the Past in Early Medieval Europe. (2015) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press., pp.34-50.
[16] Rosamond McKitterick. History and Memory in the Carolingian World. (2004) Cambridge: Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge. p.235-244.
[17] Allyson Everingham Sheckler  and Mary Joan Winn Leith. The Crucifixion Conundrum and the Santa Sabina Doors. (2010)Harvard Theological Review. Vol 103 (1) 67-88.
[18] <>
[19] <>
[20] <>
[21] <>
[23] Raymond Davis, ed. The Book of Pontiffs (Liber Pontificalis): The Ancient Biographies of the First Ninety Roman Bishops to AD 715. (2000) Liverpool. Liverpool University Press, 87-88.

Still more to come!

Jesse Tree Wood: Trunk, Vine, Leaves, Flowers, and Fruit-Part 3

 Continued from previous blog.
       In the fifth century, most probably before 440 CE, Socrates Scholasticus wrote in Historia Ecclesiastica Book 1 Chapter XVII about how the Emperor Constantine’s mother Helena went to Jerusalem, searched for and found the Cross of Christ.  It was Constantine I and his mother, Helena, who had the Church of the Holy Sepulchre built on the site. [10]  This is the first reference to finding the cross of Crucifixion.

      [She] found three crosses in the sepulchre: one of these was that blessed
     cross on which Christ had hung, the other two were those on which the
     two thieves that were crucified with him had died. With these was also
     found the tablet [alternatively, board] of Pilate, on which he had inscribed
     in various characters that the Christ who was crucified was king of the Jews.
     Since, however, it was doubtful which was the cross they were in search of,
     …bishop of Jerusalem, Macarius,…solved the doubt by faith, for he sought
     a sign from God and obtained it. The sign was this: a certain woman of the
     neighborhood, who had been long afflicted with disease, was now just at
     the point of death; the bishop therefore arranged it so that each of the crosses
     should be brought to the dying woman, believing that she would be healed
     on touching the precious cross. Nor was he disappointed in his expectation:
     for the two crosses having been applied which were not the Lord's,the
    woman still continued in a dying state; but when the third, which was the
     true cross, touched her, she was immediately healed, and recovered her
     former strength. In this manner then was the genuine cross discovered.
    The emperor's mother erected over the place of the sepulchre a magnificent
    church,[alternatively, house of prayer] and named it New Jerusalem,
    having built it facing that old and deserted city. There she left a portion
    of the cross, enclosed in a silver case, as a memorial to those who might
    wish to see it: the other part she sent to the emperor, who being persuaded
    that the city would be perfectly secure where that relic should be preserved,
    privately enclosed it in his own statue, which stands on a large column of
    porphyry in the forum called Constantine's at Constantinople...Moreover
    the nails with which Christ's hands were fastened to the cross (for his
    mother having found these also in the sepulchre had sent them) Constantine
    took and had made into bridle-bits and a helmet, which he used in his
    military expeditions.

            Writing a few years after Socrates Scholasticus, Sozomenus, began writing his Historia Ecclesiastica after 443 to bring the history of the church up to year 439, though the portion of his work that covers the years 425-439 has been lost.  In his Book II, he also wrote two chapters about Empress Helena, the mother of Constantine I, visiting Jerusalem.  The first chapter is about finding three crosses in Jerusalem.[11]  Sozomenus wrote “Helena repaired to the city for the purpose of offering up prayer, and of visiting the sacred places.  Her zeal for Christianity made her anxious to find the wood which had formed the adorable cross.  But it was no easy matter to discover either this relic or the Lord’s sepulchre.”

          In his version, Sozomenus offers an alternative explanation for finding the site, “some say that the facts were first disclosed by a Hebrew who dwelt in the East, and who derived his information from some documents which had come to him by paternal inheritance…”  Sozomenus went on to write, “When by command of the emperor the place was excavated deeply, the cave whence our Lord arose from the dead was discovered; and at no great distance, three crosses were found and another separate piece of wood, on which were inscribed in white letters in Hebrew, in Greek, and in Latin, the following words: ‘Jesus of Nazareth, the king of the Jews.’”  Sozomenus wrote that the soldiers had discarded the crossed after removing the bodies of Jesus and the thieves so it would require a sign to figure out which was the true cross.  As in Socrates’ version, the three crosses were brought to a lady sick to the point on death.  When the third cross was laid on her, she was immediately cured and rose from her sick bed.  Then,

          the venerated wood having been thus identified, the greater portion of it was
          deposited in a silver case, in which it is still preserved in Jerusalem: but the
          empress sent part of it to her son Constantine, together with the nails by
          which the body of Christ had been fastened. Of these, it is related, the emperor
          had a head-piece and bit made for his horse, according to the prophecy of
          Zechariah, who referred to this period when he said, ‘that which shall be upon
          the bit of the horse shall be holy to the Lord Almighty.’

            Theodoret , bishop of Cyrrhus from 423-457, was the third author of an Ecclesiastical History.  Theodoret wrote about 450 CE.  In his Book I, Ch. 17, he wrote a compact version of the finding of the true cross and its recovery and preservation.

   When the empress beheld the place where the Saviour suffered, she
    immediately ordered the idolatrous temple, which had been there erected,
    to be destroyed, and the very earth on which it stood to be removed. When
    the tomb, which had been so long concealed, was discovered, three crosses
    were seen buried near the Lord’s sepulchre. … [T]he wise and holy
    Macarius, the president of the city, resolved this question in the following
    manner. He caused a ladyof rank, who had been long suffering from disease,
    to be touched by each of the crosses... For the instant this cross was
    brought near the lady, it expelled the sore disease, and made her whole.

   The mother of the emperor… gave orders that a portion of the nails should be
   inserted in the royal helmet, in order that the head of her son might be
   preserved from the darts of his enemies. The other portion of the nails she
   ordered to be formed into the bridle of his horse…

  She had part of the cross of our Saviour conveyed to the palace. The rest was
  enclosed in a covering of silver, and committed to the care of the bishop of the
  city, whom she exhorted to preserve it carefully, in order that it might be
  transmitted uninjured to posterity …

       Apparently, none of the 5th century texts of church history written in Greek were in England by 1100.  There were manuscripts of Eusebius’ Historia Ecclesiastica as translated by Rufinus available but the text by Eusebius did not relate any story about the finding of the Cross.[12]

       It was a fourth version of early Christian church history compiled by an Italian statesman and monk called Cassiodorus who was the author of the Historia Tripartita.   Cassiodorus was a Greek speaking Italian from the coastal Calabrian region who had retired to the monastic community, Vivarium, in the second half of the sixth century after being an administrator under the Ostrogoths in Italy and also in Byzantium.  He composed the history using the three fifth century texts mentioned above (Socrates Scholasticus, Sozomenus, and Theodoret of Cyrrhus).  One of Cassiodorus’ colleagues at Vivarium, Epiphanius, translated the text into Latin. 

       None of the Greek ecclesiastical histories were known in England.  The only English owned copy of Historia Tripartita is a fragment at the Winchester Cathedral Library with shelf-number 25.[13]  It was made in north-eastern France about 925-950.  Even though the evidence for the availability of the Latin Historia Tripartita is scant for England, ninth and tenth century and later copies including some early print editions of the Historia Tripartita texts were quite widely available on the continent in monasteries and later libraries now located in France, Germany, Switzerland and Italy.  One hundred thirty-seven manuscript copies of the text survived to the 20th century, an indication of the text’s popularity and influence.  Some of the French abbeys having copies include Corbie Abbey and the Abbey St. Riquier, both in Sommes, Picardy; and Abbey of Saint-Wandrille in Seine-Maritime, Normandy, one copy was owned by Benedictine Abbey Saint-Père-en-Vallée in Chartres, Saint-Gatien at Tours, Saint-Auben at Angers, and others all had copies of Historia Trpartita.[14]  Several of these abbeys had ties to English houses.[15]  Rosamond McKitterick suggested in her book, History and Memory in the Carolingian World, that this pattern of distribution was not haphazard but rather a deliberate plan during the Carolingian Reformation to improve learning at the abbeys, correctio and emandatio[16] So Cassiodorus’ Historia Tripartita was how the story of the finding of the True Cross reached from the Greek speaking Byzantine Empire to western Europe.

Two pages of Cassiodorus' Historia Tripartita that tell of Helen's finding of the Tree Cross from Book II. Manuscript now in the Vatican Library,Apostolica Vaticana, Pal. lat. 824.
Epiphanius Scholasticus & Flavius Magnus . Manuscript made in Germany about 1100.
Historia ecclesiastica tripartita

Continued to the next blog. 


Jesse Tree Wood: Trunk, Vine, Leaves, Flowers, and Fruit-Part 2

I had hoped to have this prepared by Holy Cross Day, September 14th, but that was not to be.  In medieval times, there were two celebrations of the Holy Cross in the Roman Catholic Church.  The Inventions of the Holy Cross was celebrated on May 3rd and the Exaltation of the Holy Cross on September 14th.  

Wood of the True Cross

            It might not be immediately obvious why a discussion of the wood of the instrument of brutal Roman punishment, crucifixion, should or even would be discussed when writing about the Jesse Tree.  The Jesse Tree celebrates the nativity of Jesus and his enthronement in glory where he “sitteth at the right hande of the father.”  The enthronement in glory is theologically tied to the coming again in judgment often called the Second Coming, at least since the Nicene Creed of 325 CE.  “[H]e shall come again with glory, to judge both the quicke and the dead.” (1549 Book of Common Prayer)  Or the Greek, “ἐρχόμενον κρῖναι ζῶντας καὶ νεκρούς.” and Latin, “Et íterum venturus est cum gloria, Iudicare vivos et mórtuos…”

            As it says in the 1549 Book or Common Prayer and only minimally modernized (The Burial of the Dead):  “In the myddest of lyfe we be in death, of whom may we seke for succour but of thee, o Lorde, whiche for our synnes justly art moved? yet o Lord God moste holy, o Lord moste mighty, o holy and moste merciful saviour, delyver us not into the bitter paines of eternal death.” (Order for the Burial of the Dead, 1549 Book of Common Prayer).  The words in Latin are: Media vita in morte sumus ; quem quaerimus adjutorem, nisi te Domine, qui pro peccatis nostris juste irasceris? Sancte Deus, sancte fortis, sancte et misericors Salvator, amarae morti ne tradas nos.  The words are an antiphon written perhaps about 750 in France and familiar to many clergy, clerks, monks, nuns and laypeople. 

            At times in human history, it has seemed that the only purpose of life was death.  Until the 20th century, mortality rates for infants, children, and adults were high, especially for children and women in childbearing years.  Death was an everyday fact of life.  A quarter of all newborns and infants died before their first birthday.[1]  Once children were fully weaned at age three, their diets were inadequate so death from malnutrition and infectious disease increased again at 4 years.[2]  About 36% of all children died before the age of 6 years.[3] Deaths continued in children older than 7 years because of malnutrition, infectious diseases, and increasing work load for children.[4]  Over 40% of children were dead by aged 10 years.[5]  Less than half of the children born reached their 21st year.[6]  For a women who survived childhood and became pregnant, she could expect up to a 1-2% chance of dying with each pregnancy or about 10% during her lifetime or more during times of food shortages or epidemics..  Even as late as 1900, the average adult life expectancy was only 47 years.
       Though most Jesse Trees do not have depictions the Crucifixion, a few do such as the already stained glass windows at Wells Cathedral or the Crucifixion scene in the oculus above the Jesse Tree in Beauvais Cathedral.  And certainly a monk or nun contemplating the wood of the trunk of Jesse would have thought about Jesus and his death upon the Cross.  In the popular French retelling of the Bible called Le Roman de Dieu et de sa Mère, the author recommends that the reader contemplate the meaning of the Crucifixion even when making the sign of the cross.[7]

 Helen finding True Cross. British Library Royal 6 E VI  f. 447v.  "Crux (Cross)" in the encyclopaedia entitled Omne Bonum (Circumcisio-Dona Spiritui Sancti). Made in south-east England, London, during the years 1360-1375. Scribe is identified at James le Palmer.

Legends of the True Cross

            The medieval mind was preoccupied with the interplay of words and images.  Examples shown in two biblical texts already discussed include: 1) Isaiah spoke of a stem from the tree stump of Jesse, and 2) Jeremiah prophesied a righteous Branch from David.  There is an additional tree or wood image that might not immediately come to mind.  When looking at sources such as the Bible picture books called Biblia Pauperum, one encounters pictures of the second dream of King Nebuchadnezzar.  In King Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, a tree grew from the center of the earth to a great height so it was seen from everywhere.  The leaves were beautiful, and there was abundant fruit.  Animals found shade under its branches and birds built nests in its limbs.  But then a Holy Watcher came and ordered that the tree be cut down except for the stump in the ground bound with iron and brass. (Daniel 4.4-27)  Daniel interprets the dream as a prediction of the life that the King was to lead.  King Nebuchadnezzar was to become very powerful.  Then the king would be driven from society to dwell as a wild animal eating grass and bathing in dew until he learned the sovereignty of the Most High over everything.  Then, just as the stump was left in the ground, so King Nebuchadnezzar would reestablish his kingdom. 

Nebuchadnezzar and his dream of the magnificent and large tree.  British Libaray Royal 6 E VII   f. 489.  From the entry for Nebuchadnezzar in Omne Bonum (Jacob-Zacharias). Made in south-east England, London from about 1360-1375

            To the medieval mind, the tree was hewed down so it could regrow as a Messianic kingdom.  The medieval mind saw these symbols of growth and destruction of trees as the destruction of Israel and subsequent redemption through Jesus Christ.  The reference is not just to the events of the gospels but also the hoped for second coming as expressed in Revelation 5.5:

            et unus de senioribus dicit mihi ne fleveris ecce vicit leo de tribu Iuda radix 
           David aperire librum et septem signacula eius.(Vulgate:Apocalypsis 5:5)
           Then one of the elders said to me, “Do not weep. See, the Lion of the tribe
           of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and
           its seven seals.” (Revelation 5.5, NRSV)

            To the early church, the crucifixion was still a source of pain and humiliation.  There are few references .to the cross or crucifixion in the writings of the early Christian church writers of antiquity.

Before Constantine

            Ignatius, was early church father who wrote in his “Epistle of Ignatius to the Ephesians” about the Glory of the Cross as a stumbling block.  He paraphrases Paul in I Corinthians 1.23, saying, “The cross of Christ is indeed a stumbling-block to those that do not believe, but to the believing it is salvation and life eternal.”[8]

            Another early reference to the cross is in the Epistle of Barnabas written at the end of the 1st century or early 2nd century by an unknown author, despite the letter’s title.  Written perhaps in Alexandria, the author sees frequent references to the Cross in the Old Testament as an extended foreshadowing of life and salvation given by the death of Jesus.  To the author, Moses is a type of Jesus, especially Moses’ sufferings at the hand of the Hebrews when they complain and rebel.  The author says that because Eve sinned because of the serpent, just as the Hebrews in the wilderness were bitten with venomous snakes and died until Moses raised the bronze serpent on a pole that they might look on it.  The raising of the pole and the cure by looking upon it was an indication of the glory of Jesus. 
       The veneration of relics was first mentioned in the Martyrdom of Polycarp written about 150-160 CE.  After his body was burned, his bones was collected and preserved as they “more valuable than precious stones.” (The letter of the Smyrnaeans or the Martyrdom of Polycarp, 18.2. Lightfoot translation. <>.)

            In early Christian art, there are no crosses.  In the catacombs of Rome, one finds chi and rho, alpha and omega, fish, anchors, but no crosses per se.  In an early Christian church dating to the 200s found at Megiddo, Israel, the elaborate mosaic floor has two fish and geometric designs.

The Centuries after Constantine

           The crossi is seen  with some regularity  with or soon after the death of the Emperor Constantine.  Eusebius of Caesarea writing after the death of Constantine about 337 CE or so mentions that Constantine had a dream of a new banner to be carried into battle of a cross with a banner and chi-rho for Christ called a labarum.  It appeared on the coins of Constantine and his sons.  An example of a bronze coin referred to as a follis from the end of the reign of Constantine I is shown below.

Constantine I AE follis. 335-337 AD bronze coin minted at Arles with Chi-Rho on banner or labarum.  RIC VII 394

            Eusebius continues in the Life of Constantine to write about how the site where Jesus had been buried was venerated among Christians in Jerusalem but it was covered with a mound of dirt and a temple to Venus built on top.[9]  (One assumes that this is a reference to the destruction of Jerusalem under Emperor Hadrian and his rebuilding of the city as Aelia Capitolina.)  Constantine ordered that the site be cleared of temple and dirt, and on the site the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was to be built.  Constantine gives orders to Bishop Macarius of Jerusalem and the governors about the building of the church.  There is no mention of finding any cross.  The narrative continues with Constantine’s mother, Helena, founding a church at the grotto where Jesus was born, and another on the Mount of Olives the site of the Ascension.

Continued to next part.