The Jesse Tree

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.

1. Rouen Cathedral, Rouen, France

1. Rouen Cathedral, Rouen, France, Postcard Photo

St. Matthew's Cathedral, Washington, DC

2. St. Matthew’s Cathedral, Washington, DC

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.”

1. Choir & Ambulatory, Abbey Church of St. Denis, St. Denis, France

3. Choir & Ambulatory, Abbey Church of St. Denis, France

2. Ambulatory, Abbey Church of St. Denis, St. Denis, France

4. Ambulatory, Abbey Church of St. Denis, France

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.

3. Jesse (L) and Suger (R), Jesse Tree Window, Abbey Church of St. Denis, France

5. Jesse (L) and Suger (R), Jesse Tree Window, Abbey Church of St. Denis, France (click to enlarge)

4. Jesse Tree Window, Abbey Church of St. Denis, France

6. Jesse Tree Window, Abbey Church of St. Denis, France

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).

Last Judgement Rose and (L - R) the Passion, Life of Christ, and Jesse Tree Windows; Chartres Cathedral, France

7. Last Judgement Rose and (L – R) the Passion, Life of Christ, and Jesse Tree Windows; Chartres Cathedral, France

Jesse Tree Window, Chartres Cathedral, France

8. Jesse Tree Window, Chartres Cathedral, France (click to enlarge)

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.

Jesse, Jesse Tree Window, Chartres Cathedral, France

9. Jesse in the Jesse Tree Window, Chartres Cathedral, France

10. Prophet in the Jesse Tree Window, Chartres Cathedral, France

10. Prophet Zephaniah (Sophonie) in the Jesse Tree Window, Chartres Cathedral, France

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).

King David, Jesse Tree Window, Chartres Cathedral, France

11. King David with Samuel & Amos, Jesse Tree Window, Chartres Cathedral, France

Mary with , Jesse Tree Window, Chartres Cathedral, France

12. Mary with Isaiah & Daniel , Jesse Tree Window, Chartres Cathedral, France

13. Jesus with Habakkuk & Zephaniah, Jesse Tree Window, Chartres Cathedral, France

13. Jesus with Habakkuk & Zephaniah, Jesse Tree Window, Chartres Cathedral, France (click to enlarge)

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.]

West Facade and Portals, Rouen Cathedral, Rouen, France

14. West Facade and Portals, Rouen Cathedral, Rouen, France

Jesse Tree, Rouen Cathedral, Rouen, France

15. Jesse Tree, Rouen Cathedral, Rouen, France

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.”

16. Jesse Tree Mosaic, St. Matthew's Cathedral, Washington, DC

16. Jesse Tree Mosaic, St. Matthew’s Cathedral, Washington, DC

Mike Klug, mikejklug@aol.com, 12/22/14

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Attributes of the Apostles and Legend

When I began to delve into iconography about 25 years ago, I was mildly surprised to learn that many familiar images of the apostles originate in legends and “tall tales,” not in scripture. It was a good reminder that the Christian New Testament is often silent about the later missionary careers of men like Andrew, James, and Bartholomew, and about interesting details in the lives and deaths of major figures such as Paul. Legendary accounts help address the apparent omissions about which people were curious. Some legends, including the story about St. Paul’s martyrdom by decapitation, are plausible. Others, like the story about St. John’s poison draught, are more imaginative than factual. Such legends may not be “true” in the sense that most people understand that term today, but they do convey moral or theological truths through their improbable and entertaining accounts of saintly exploits.

In today’s post, we’ll feature the legendary attributes of the apostles Andrew, John, and Paul. Their attributes, or identifying emblems, often appear in representations of these saintly men in medieval cathedrals and modern churches alike. Our tour will start in Chartres, France and follow a circuitous route to Rouen in Normandy, to Wells in England, and from there to upstate New York, Washington, DC, and Iowa. We’ll start with John who, according to John’s gospel, was the disciple “whom Jesus loved.”

1. Crucifixion Scene with Mary (L) and John (R), Passion & Resurrection Lancet, Chartres Cathedral

1. Crucifixion Scene with Mary (L) and John (R), Passion & Resurrection Lancet, Chartres Cathedral

St. John and His Chalice  John the Apostle is known by more than one attribute. As mentioned in my post on the iconography of the Four Evangelists (7/21/2014), the eagle symbolizes John’s status as a gospel writer. In addition, he often appears in scenes of the crucifixion, standing or kneeling to Mary’s left at the foot of the cross (photo 1, above) and is shown beardless because he was thought to be the youngest of Jesus’ twelve disciples (photo 2).

2. St. John (2nd from left) with Apostles, South Porch, Chartres Cathedral

2. Beardless John (2nd from left) with (L to R) Sts. Paul, James Major, James Minor & Bartholomew, Chartres Cathedral, South Porch

But a curious legend about John has long inspired artists to portray him holding a cup with a snake or serpent in it (photo 3). We find this story among the hundreds of tales compiled by Jacobus of Voragine in his voluminous Legenda Aurea, or Golden Legend, completed around the year 1265.

St. John and Serpent in Chalice, Sacred Heart Cathedral, Davenport, IA

3. St. John and Serpent in Chalice, Sacred Heart Cathedral, Davenport, IA

The Golden Legend tells of John’s testy encounter with Aristodemus, a priest of the goddess Diana. As John was preaching, Diana’s followers stirred up a crowd who dragged the apostle to Diana’s temple to force him to offer a sacrifice to the Greek goddess. John refused and proposed an alternative. If he could destroy Diana’s temple by praying to his Lord, would the people switch their allegiance to Jesus Christ? They agreed to the deal. John prayed and, lo and behold, Diana’s temple crumbled to the ground. But Aristodemus was unconvinced. John asked, “What can I do to persuade you?” The priest replied, “If you want me to believe in your God, I will give you poison to drink, and if it does you no harm, then I shall know that your Lord is the true God!” John drank the poison and lived.

5. St. John with Chalice (4th from left), Wells Cathedral, Somerset England

4. St. John with Chalice (4th from left), St. Andrew’s Cathedral,  Wells, England (click to enlarge)

The snake slithering out of John’s chalice symbolizes the power of the apostle’s faith in the true God to overcome the evil of idolatry. It’s an idea that spread throughout Christendom on the heels of sculpted images of John and his cup. You’ll see them in the Apostles Gallery, dating to the mid-1200s, high atop the elaborate West Façade of Wells Cathedral (photo 4, above). John and his chalice join four other apostles in more naturalistic statuary that was characteristic of the later Gothic and early Renaissance periods, on the south portal of the fourteenth century St. Ouen Abbey in Rouen (photos 5 & 6).

Abbey Church of St. Ouen, Rouen, France

5. Abbey Church of St. Ouen, Rouen, France

7. St. John (Center) with Apostles, South Porch of St. Ouen Abbey Church

6. (L to R) Bartholomew(?), James the Less, John & Chalice, Andrew & X-Cross, and Peter; South Portal, Abbey Church of St. Ouen (click to enlarge)

In the U.S., John’s chalice is carved in an altar rail at Washington’s National Cathedral and it shows up too in nineteenth century stained glass at Albany’s Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception (photos 7 & 8). More examples exist throughout the United States in the churches of many denominations.

St. John Altar Rail Carving, Washington National Cathedral, Washington, DC

7. St. John Altar Rail Carving, Washington National Cathedral, Washington, DC

St. John Window, Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Albany, NY

8. St. John Window, Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Albany, NY

St. Paul’s Sword   The New Testament, mainly in the Acts of the Apostles and Paul’s various epistles, provides a wealth of information about the man named both Saul and Paul who persecuted early Christians and then became a believer himself after a dramatic conversion experience on the road to Damascus. Scripture details Paul’s three missionary trips to Greece and Asia Minor, his meeting with Peter at the Council of Jerusalem to resolve a dispute about circumcising the Gentiles, his miracles, his shipwreck on Malta and much, much more. But the Bible says nothing about Paul’s demise. The Acts of the Apostles ends with Paul under house arrest in Rome “preaching the kingdom of God, and preaching those things which concern the Lord Jesus Christ, with all confidence, no man forbidding him.” Who wouldn’t wonder, “What happened next?” Happily, the Golden Legend fills in the blanks.

Paul lived in Rome for two years during the reign of unstable Emperor Nero. The Golden Legend reports that Nero did not take kindly to the apostle. According to the legend, Paul restored Patroclus, the emperor’s cupbearer, to life following a fatal accident. Patroclus fell to his death from the ledge of a second or third story window.  He had fallen asleep as he listened to Paul preach. Paul came to the rescue and revived Patroclus through fervent prayer. When the cupbearer regained consciousness, he became a Christian.

St. Paul, Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Albany, NY

9. St. Paul with a Bloody Sword, Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Albany, NY

When Nero heard the news, he was livid and promptly sentenced Paul to death for treason. Because Paul was a Roman citizen, he escaped crucifixion (the fate of Peter and Andrew) and was instead beheaded with a sword. After Paul’s head fell, the Golden Legend reports that “a great light filled the sky, and a perfume of wonderful sweetness emanated from his body.” What became of Paul’s head? It “was thrown into a pit, and because of all the other people who had been executed and whose heads and limbs had been thrown there, it could never be found….” This apparently explains why curious 13th century pilgrims might not find Paul’s skull among his relics. [On a speculative note, I can’t help but wonder if the story of Patroclus’ fall from the window ledge was added to warn preachers against long-winded and “deadly” sermons!]

And so the sword became Paul’s characteristic emblem in Christian iconography (photo 9, above). It typifies the common practice of using an instrument of martyrdom to identify a saint. Among the 13th century apostle statues on Chartres Cathedral’s south porch (photo 2, above), we find Paul serenely clutching the hilt of a sword. The blade is missing. At the Washington National Cathedral, a delicate rendering of Paul, designed in the 1970’s by Frederick Hart, captures the moment in which heavenly light blinds the apostle on the road to Damascus. Paul holds a sword in his left hand (photo 10). An image of a sailing vessel on the statue’s pedestal refers to Paul’s various missionary voyages on the Mediterranean (photo 11).

St. Paul by Frederick Hart, Washington National Cathedral, Washington, DC

10. St. Paul by Frederick Hart, Washington National Cathedral, Washington, DC

11. St. Paul's Pedestal, Washington National Cathedral, Washington, DC

11. St. Paul’s Pedestal, Washington National Cathedral, Washington, DC

Saint Andrew’s Cross   The New Testament gospels tell us that Andrew was a fisherman, brother of Simon Peter, and among the first called by Jesus to become one of the twelve disciples. Scripture says nothing though about Andrew’s missionary work after he and the other disciples were “filled with the Holy Spirit” on Pentecost. The Golden Legend indicates that Andrew traveled to the north and east where he “preached the word in Scythia,” known these days as the Ukraine. The Chronicle of Nestor (ca. 1000) reports that the apostle preached along the Black Sea and visited Kiev and Novograd. This explains in part how Andrew became the patron saint of Ukraine, Russia, and Romania, but not how he became the patron saint of Scotland or how the X-shaped, saltire cross came to be associated with and the homeland of King James I and, more recently, novelist J.K. Rowling (photo 12).

Flag of Scotland with St. Andrew's Cross, Image by Wikipedia Commons

12. St. Andrew’s Cross in Scotland’s Flag, Wikipedia Commons

The story of Andrew’s death on a cross in Patras, Greece has its roots in a third century apocryphal (non-canonical) book called the Acts of Andrew.  The account in the Golden Legend of Andrew’s crucifixion at the hands of the Roman pro-consul Aegeus derives largely from this earlier work. It describes Andrew being bound to a cross and preaching to 20,000 people as he hung from it, before he died two days later. But the Golden Legend does not specify the shape of Andrew’s cross. This led early Christian artists to sometimes use a Latin cross as his attribute.

According to Judith Calvert’s 1984 Art Bulletin article, “the familiar iconography” of Andrew’s X-shaped cross “does not seem to have been standardized before the late Middle Ages.” Indeed, the statue of Andrew at Chartres Cathedral, most likely installed around 1224, shows him holding the upright beam of a Latin cross whose cross-beam has broken off (photo 13). Yet a sculpture of Andrew at Wells Cathedral that dates to just a few years later in the mid-1200’s, presents him with an X-shaped cross (photo 14). How is it that England was way ahead of France and its other neighbors in Europe with respect to St. Andrew’s familiar attribute?

13. Apostles (L to R) Simon, Thomas, Philip, Andrew and Peter, Chartres Cathedral

13. Apostles (L to R) Simon, Thomas, Philip, Andrew and Peter, Chartres Cathedral

14. Andrew and His Cross on the Left, Apostles Gallery, Wells Cathedral

14. St. Andrew on the Left, Apostles Gallery, St. Andrew’s Cathedral; Wells, England

The answer is not in the Golden Legend.  We find it instead in a story that started in Scotland in the ninth century, C.E., and spread from there.  In the year 832, Oengus II led a heavily outnumbered army of Picts and Scots against an Army of Angles led by Athelstan. On the eve of the battle, Oengus prayed to St. Andrew for help and vowed that if his army should prevail he would name Andrew the patron saint of Scotland. The next morning, an X-shaped cloud appeared in the sky. Oengus saw in it the shape of the cross on which Andrew died.

Like Constantine who saw a cross in the sky before the Battle at the Milvian Bridge, Oengus saw a cross and was victorious. Henceforth, the X-shaped or “saltire” cross has been inextricably linked with St. Andrew and Scotland. Regrettably, I could not track down the earliest documented sources for this legend, though it might be among the stories in the Legendary of Scotland. To learn more about the history of the Scottish flag, I recommend a visit to Scotland’s National Flag Heritage Centre [http://www.visitscotland.com/en-us/info/see-do/national-flag-heritage-centre-p253351].

St. Andrew Altar Rail Carving, Washington National Cathedral, Washington, DC

15. St. Andrew Altar Rail Carving, Washington National Cathedral, Washington, DC

We’ll close this post by noting that Andrew’s Cross eventually made its way from Scotland to cathedrals and churches in North America through a wide range of media and artistic styles. Examples include an altar rail carving at the Washington National Cathedral (photo 15, above), stained glass at Sacred Heart Cathedral in Davenport, Iowa (photo 16), a hand-made needlepoint cushion at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, also in Davenport (photo 17), and a low-relief sculpture of Andrew paired with Moses at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, DC (photos 18 & 19).

Peter & Andrew Window, Sacred Heart Cathedral, Davenport, IA

16. Peter & Andrew Window, Sacred Heart Cathedral, Davenport, IA

St. Andrew's Cross in Needlepoint, Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, Davenport, IA

17. St. Andrew’s Cross in Needlepoint, Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, Davenport, IA

18. Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, View from South, Washington, DC

18. Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, View from South, Washington, DC

19. Andrew paired with Moses, West Facade, Shrine of the Immaculate Conception

19. Andrew with Moses and Peter (above), West Facade, Shrine of the Immaculate Conception

Mike Klug, mikejklug@aol.com, 12/20/2014