I’m posting this article on the fourth and final Sunday of Advent, the ecclesiastical season that precedes Christmas. It’s a period during which Christians prepare for and commemorate the coming of Jesus at his nativity in Bethlehem. Some celebrate the season by attending performances of Handel’s Messiah. Others light the four candles on an Advent wreath, the tapers representing the four Sundays in the season. Meanwhile, many children open one of the small windows on Advent calendars in a daily count-down to December 25th.
Advent is also the time when attentive church goers hear a series of readings from a book in the Hebrew Bible (Christians call it the Old Testament) attributed to the prophet Isaiah. Scholars believe that multiple authors contributed to its 66 chapters and that they wrote the book in three sections over a 300 year span starting in the eighth century, BCE. Some of Isaiah’s writings are so integral to the theology of Jesus as the long hoped for Messiah that they prompted St. John Chrysostom, one of the early church fathers, to call Isaiah “the prophet with the loudest voice.” Isaiah’s stature among the medieval theologians at Chartres led them to set a stained glass image of the prophet in a place of honor in the window next to Mary and the Christ child, high in the cathedral’s glistening apse (photos 1 and 2, click to enlarge).
It is worth noting that, on no less than half the days in Advent, lectors read excerpts from the Book of Isaiah at daily worship services precisely because Christians believe that they foretell something significant about Jesus; his lineage, the circumstances of his birth, and his meaning for all humanity. In today’s post, we’ll look at one of Isaiah’s common attributes and explore how medieval and modern artists have rendered four of Isaiah’s prophetic texts in sculpture and stained glass at cathedrals and churches in Europe, Canada, and the U.S.
Isaiah’s Attributes Without a caption bearing his name, it can be difficult to distinguish Isaiah from other prophets in cathedral art. The Old Testament prophets—Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and others—tend to look alike. They wear robes and have beards. But artists sometimes depict Isaiah with a hot coal touching his mouth. This identifying attribute derives from a verse in the Book of Isaiah, chapter six, where the prophet describes an encounter with a six-winged angel: “Then flew one of the seraphim unto me, having a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with the tongs from off the altar, and he laid it upon my mouth, and said, ‘Lo, this hath touched thy lips, and thine iniquity is taken away….” A 20th century stained glass quatrefoil at Sts. Michael & Gudula Cathedral in Brussels captures the scene (Photo 3). The angel holds the tongs in his right hand and raises his left hand in a gesture of blessing. Isaiah’s right hand holds a quill with which he is writing his book. A circular halo appears about his head, a sign normally used to identify Christian saints.
Isaiah & John the Baptist The first words sung in the Messiah, Handel’s majestic oratorio about Jesus’ nativity and passion, are, “Comfort ye my people, saith your God.” The words, from the first verse of Isaiah, chapter 40, begin a passage that Christians believe refers to Jesus’ precursor and cousin, John the Baptist. Verse three reads, “The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, ‘Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’”
Matthew’s gospel relates that John the Baptist preached and baptized “in the wilderness of Judea” and identifies John specifically as the one to whom Isaiah’s words refer. Matthew wrote, “For this is he that was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah saying, ‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness, prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” He goes on to say that John wore garments made of camel’s hair with a leather girdle on his loins, and that his meager diet consisted of locusts and honey. Like Isaiah, John spoke with a prophetic voice about Jesus when he declared, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”
Thirteenth century sculptors at Chartres Cathedral illustrated this link between Isaiah and John the Baptist by placing them in a group of five Biblical figures who reputedly foresaw that Jesus would (or had) come to save a fallen world (photo 4 above, click to enlarge). Isaiah and Jeremiah were among the first and John, along with Simeon and Peter, were the last. An emaciated John the Baptist holds a disc that encircles a lamb clutching a cross with an oriflamme at its top. The lamb alludes to John’s recognition of Jesus as the “Lamb of God” while the oriflamme symbolizes Jesus’ eventual victory over death. A wingless dragon (photo 5) appears on the sculpted pedestal beneath John’s feet to indicate that John has surmounted evil. Nineteenth century Victorian artists acknowledged the connection between Isaiah and John by placing them in a pair of adjacent windows at Gloucester Cathedral in England (photo 6).
Isaiah and the Virgin Birth The Christian belief in Jesus as both God and Man rests largely on the premise that Mary, Jesus’ mother, conceived a child through the agency of the Holy Spirit. Matthew’s gospel tells how an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream to inform him that Mary, a virgin, would bear a child of God. Matthew explains that this improbable occurrence was foretold long ago. He wrote, “Now all of this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, ‘Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is God with us.’” Isaiah is the prophet Matthew cites. A 20th century mosaic to the right of the altar at St. Joseph’s Oratory in Montreal depicts the messenger angel descending on Joseph as he sleeps (photos 7 & 8).
The close link between Isaiah’s prophetic texts and Matthew’s nativity narrative probably explains why medieval artists at Chartres designed a stained glass scene with Matthew perched on Isaiah’s shoulders, implying that the New Testament writer sits atop an Old Testament giant (photo 9). Modern glass at the Washington National Cathedral follows a similar pattern in which gospel writers and apostles are paired with Old Testament figures including Elijah, Moses, Isaiah, Ezekiel and others (photo 10).
Isaiah and Jesus’ Lineage The first chapter of Matthew’s gospel establishes Jesus’ royal heritage with a detailed genealogy that extends back to King David and beyond to the Hebrew patriarchs. Matthew stressed Jesus’ connection to King David because it’s essential to establishing Jesus as the Messiah, or Christ. People believed that the Messiah would grow from a branch on David’s family tree. The primary source for this belief was the prophet Isaiah who wrote in chapter eleven, verse one, that “there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse (King David’s father), and a branch shall grow out of his roots, and the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, knowledge and of the fear of the Lord….”
Around the year 1100, German artists began to display Isaiah’s root, rod, and stem metaphors in miniature paintings of what came to be called “Jesse Trees.” Within fifty years, massive stained glass Jesse trees were installed at the Abbey Church of St. Denis near Paris, York Minster in England, and at Chartres Cathedral in France (photo 11, above, and see my blog post for 12/23/14 on “The Jesse Tree”). A Jesse tree depicts its namesake lying asleep at the base of the tree. The trunk rises from Jesse’s groin and spreads into branches from which Kings David, Solomon and other royal offspring sprout. Mary and Jesus are the blossoms atop the tree (photos 12 & 13).
The Jesse Tree also influenced representations of Isaiah. At Chartres, for example, the sculpted pedestal beneath Isaiah’s feet on the cathedral’s north porch shows Jesse sleeping (photo 14). It mirrors the colorful glass image of the dormant Jesse that’s located above the cathedral’s main doorways (photo 15).
Initially, Chartres’ Isaiah statue held a blossoming branch whose stem extended downward from the prophet’s hand to the sleeping Jesse pedestal. Sadly, the stem is missing. But across the Atlantic, one finds the blossom and stem in Isaiah’s hand in a bas relief sculpture on the west façade of Washington’s Shrine of the Immaculate Conception (photos 16 & 17), carved 700 years after the statuary at Chartres.
Isaiah and the Messianic Age Christians maintain that Jesus’ nativity ushered in a new age in which a Prince of Peace would bring light and love to a darkened world. Harmony and tranquility would characterize the Prince’s reign. This notion stems in large part from another verse in Isaiah chapter eleven that quickly follows the passage about the rod of Jesse. At verse six, Isaiah describes a transformed world in which animal instinct itself is amazingly suppressed. He writes, “Then the wolf shall be the guest of the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; the calf and the young lion shall browse together, with a little child to guide them.”
It’s a compelling statement about the future. We’ll close this post with photos of two modern windows that tenderly depict Isaiah’s hopeful perspective on the Messianic age (photos 18 & 19), along with my own prayer that we find a way to make his inspired vision of a kingdom of peace a reality in our own time, at this Christmas and in the New Year.
Copyright 2015 Michael Klug, email@example.com, 12/20/15