medieval-religion: Scholarly discussions of medieval religion and culture
From: John Dillon <[log in to unmask]>
> I wonder if anyone can tell me just how visible from the ground is the
"Tree of Jesse" in Chartres Cathedral? Could an uninformed viewer really have
gotten the story from it?
Jim Bugslag is the Glass expert on the list but, until he gets out of class,
i'll fill the breech as best i can.
Jim can then correct my scanty knowledge about various things here.
the great Western lancets of the Chartres facade, though they are "high" are
quite "readable" from the floor of the nave, providing that one has good
vision, it is a good, clear, bright day and --most important-- the windows are
they were probably clean enough for the first 4-500 years after their
installation, but by the time i arrived there in the mid-60s they were in
pretty bad shape.
but, one could still make out most of the scenes, with a bit of help in the
form of an idea before hand about what is going on.
in the mid-70s the three lancets were the first in the building to undergo an
extensive "restoration", in a process which was planned to have been applied
to all the other windows, over time.
this "restoration" turned out to be *quite* radical, involing the actual
grinding down of the exterior surface of the glass (to remove the pitting) and
the (non-reversable) application of a "plastic" coating on that surface to
permanently "stabilize" it.
when these windows were replaced a great Uproar was heard, closely followed by
a grande scandale.
the "restorations" had *greatly* increased the amount of light comming through
those western windows, which, in turn, destroyed the delicate "light ecology"
in the church, making many of the windows of the nave and side aisle virtually
unreadable on bright days when the sun was streaming in directly through the
eventually the gentlemen of the Monuments Alcoholiques were able to weather
the Chartrain merde-orage with the argument that what their work had done was,
essentially, to simply "restore" the amount of light which was originally
*supposed* to be comming through the lancets but which had been progressively
obscured by centuries of grime and destructive pitting (mainly caused by "acid
and, after a few years' discussion, the "restoration" of the other windows
was undertaken, to be nearly complete by the time i write this.
as the other windows have been "restored" the "light ecology" of the building
has been brought back into balance and, i am told, the comparative brilliance
of the west lancets no longer obscures the other windows.
of course, there isn't much of a "story" to be read in the Jesse window,
compared to those in the other two windows of the west facade (which are made
up of many panels depicting scenes from the Nativity and Passion cycles).
the scenes in those other windows are --and were, in the '60s-- "legible" in
general, though perhaps not in all details; and the same goes for the Jesse
a good question might be whether or not such details as the writing on the
various scrolls held by the figures making up the Jesse Tree were legible from
the floor --and i rather think that they might have been, originally, if one's
eyes were sharp enough.
a virtual friend of mine, a member of my little "chartrain" discussion list,
is an enthusiatic photographer with a special interest in the Chartres glass,
and he has put up some of his magnificent, *huge* .djvus on this site :
http://rubens.anu.edu.au --search for "chartres", and note the bit about the
necessity of having the "plug-in" to view these .djvu files.
at the level of magnification in these photographs we can get an idea of just
*how* detailed these images really are; and surely *all* of these details were
not visible from the ground, even when the glass was fresh and new, even when
seen through the sharpest eyes.
it may be that there was, orginally, some sort of large "westwork" chapel
between the towers (as at St. Denis) and all these details would, obviously,
have been visible from there.
that hypothesis is a bit dodgie, but there *were* chapels (one dedicated to
St. Michael) in the towers, perhaps located at the level of the lancets, and
the windows were visible from there, via the openings in the interior sides of
but, it might just be that these details were never intended to be seen by
mundane eyes, like many details in architecture and sculpture found at
Chartres and scores of other middlevil buildings....
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