During Advent, the four week preparatory period before Christmas, church choirs and congregations often sing an old hymn called “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t_2oh42E1_U]. The plaintive melody originated in 14th century France and evokes a sense of longing. Its lyrics, first written in Latin centuries ago, include these words in the second stanza: “O come, thou rod (or branch) of Jesse, free thy people from Satan’s tyranny.” The words allude to a passage in the eleventh chapter of the Book of Isaiah that says:
And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of its roots: and the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord….”
This passage in the Hebrew Bible, thought to be written in the eighth century, B.C.E., is central to the Christian belief that Jesus Christ is the promised Messiah (meaning “anointed one”). Theologians have long seen in these words a prophecy that foretells Christ’s coming as a descendant of King David in a royal line that extends to Jesus through his mother, Mary. Perceiving the importance of the prophecy to their understanding of God’s plan for salvation, twelfth and thirteenth century churchmen commissioned artists to render Isaiah’s words in stained glass and sculpture. Glaziers and sculptors responded by creating the “Jesse Tree,” an abbreviated family tree that illustrates Mary’s and Jesus’ royal lineage with a direct link to King David’s father, Jesse. David and various ancestors are depicted as “branches” on the tree. Today, we’ll visit St. Denis, Chartres, and Rouen in France, and St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington, DC to view four Jesse Trees.
Abbott Suger of St. Denis was one of the first to commission a Jesse Tree in stained glass. He did so between 1140 and 1144, the years in which construction of the “new” ambulatory and choir took place at the Abbey Church of St. Denis, near Paris (photos 3 & 4). Abbott Suger wanted to infuse the structure with color and light, and so endorsed an innovative design that employed pointed arches and ribbed vaults to allow the placement of large stained glass windows in the style we now call “Gothic.”
It’s likely that Suger himself donated the Jesse Tree window. His name in Latin, Sugerus Abas, and likeness appear near the bottom of the window where donors were typically acknowledged. In photo 5, below, the tonsured Suger kneels at a prie dieu as he offers a miniature window as a gift. At the window’s bottom center, next to Suger, Jesse sleeps. The thick white “stem” (or tree) to which Isaiah referred grows upward from Jesse’s groin. Little bubbles representing sap rise in a vertical column inside the trunk to suggest that the tree is very much alive. David, Solomon, and two other kings sit in the branches above Jesse, and above the kings the tree culminates with Mary and Jesus (photo 6). St. Denis’ Jesse Tree became a model for similar windows at Chartres, Le Mans, the Ste. Chappelle in Paris, and elsewhere. We’ll turn next to Chartres for a close look at its exceptional Jesse Tree window.
Chartres Cathedral’s Jesse Tree window is one of three lancets in the west façade that together relate Jesus’ story from the prophecies that preceded him through his post-resurrection appearance to the disciples at Emmaus (photo 7). Together the lancets comprise the finest stained glass ensemble that survives from the 1100’s. In Chartres, Emile Male’s insightful guide to the cathedral’s history, sculpture, and stained glass, the eminent art historian proclaimed that “[t]he Tree of Jesse, even more perfect than the Passion window, must be the most beautiful piece of existing stained glass.” In composition, color, and detail Chartres’ Jesse Tree window is indeed a masterpiece (photo 8).
The Jesse Tree windows at St. Denis and Chartres are nearly identical. Both read from bottom to top and start with Jesse at the bottom. As at St. Denis, a white tree trunk rises from Jesse’s groin (photo 9). Note that he wears a conical cap. It’s not a night cap, but instead an iconographic device that artists used to identify Jewish men. The single oil lamp with red flame hanging above Jesse’s head tells us that the time is before midnight, during the first watch. Two prophets appear in half circles on either side of Jesse. They and the ten other prophets placed in the Jesse Tree window represent Jesus’ spiritual ancestors. Zephaniah (photo 10) is among them.
King David appears in the square panel directly above Jesse (photo 11). David’s son, King Solomon, is next in order followed in vertical line by Jereboam, Abijah, Mary (photo 12), and Jesus (photo 13). Seven doves descend on Jesus to symbolize the gifts of the spirit that, according to Isaiah, “rest upon him.” Look closely at the aureoles that encircle the doves in photo 13. You should be able to see some of the letters in the Latin names of these gifts. The dove directly above Jesus’ head is captioned Sapientia (wisdom). The others are Intellectus (understanding), Consilium (judgment or good sense), Fortitudo (Courage), Scientia (knowledge), Pietas (piety), and Timor (fear).
In addition to the extraordinary stained glass trees, sculpted Jesse Trees adorn many Gothic cathedrals in France, including those at Laon, Chartres, and Amiens. During a visit to Rouen Cathedral in 2010, I found a Jesse Tree in the tympanum above the central portal (photos 14 & 15). In this late Gothic composition, the familiar tree trunk rises from Jesse but the sculpture departs from the pattern we’ve seen in the windows with branches shooting off to the sides where we find the kings and prophets, several of them now headless. Regrettably, Jesus has lost his head too. [Impressionist painting fans, take note. This is the cathedral facade that Monet famously painted.]
We finally arrive in the United States where, in the nation’s capital, a Jesse Tree appears in a 20th century mosaic (photo 16) at St. Matthew’s Cathedral (where John F. Kennedy’s funeral Mass took place). We can easily recognize the familiar figures of Jesse sleeping below and Mary holding the Christ child above. A king, probably David, sits halfway up the tree. Two men, most likely prophets, stand on either side of Jesse and appear to invite us to gaze on the scene with them. Significantly, the artist placed two birds on the tree’s branches. The bird on the left is a peacock, an ancient symbol for immortality because it was thought in olden times that its flesh does not decay. The bird on the right may be a multicolored Bird of Paradise. The birds’ presence seems to make the point symbolically that belief in Christ leads to everlasting life in a heavenly paradise. High above, a dove descends on Mary and Jesus to suggest again that the “Holy Spirit will rest upon him.”
Mike Klug, email@example.com, 12/22/14