The Ormesby Psalter and a lost Midlands Jesse Window: Media Cross-Fertilisation in the Early Fourteenth Century
By Dr Frederica Law-Turner
Dr Frederica Law-Turner writes and lectures on English medieval art. Her main interest is in thirteenth- and fourteenth-century manuscript illumination. She has taught at University of Kent and catalogued medieval manuscripts for Sothebys. She is currently preparing her PhD thesis on the Ormesby Psalter for publication by the Bodleian Library Press.
Since the Middle Ages the windows which were the glory of English churches have suffered such enormous losses that the history of English stained glass has been compared to a jigsaw with 99% of the pieces missing. Faced with this, scholars have usefully looked at other media for parallels for stylistic and iconographic developments and have discovered close links, in particular with manuscript painting. Given the portability of manuscripts and the immovability of windows, it has often been assumed that the glass was copied from, or at least inspired by, the manuscript. This is perhaps the case with the early fourteenth-century Jesse Tree in the nave of York Minster which has been related to the Tree in the Tickhill Psalter (New York, Public Library Spencer MS 26). In the thirteenth century, however, manuscript painters sometimes borrowed ideas from glaziers, and at least one example suggests that this practice continued into the fourteenth. The fragments of a Jesse Tree at the church of St Peter, Lowick (Northamptonshire) [Fig. 1] have been compared to the Jesse Tree in the Ormesby Psalter (Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Douce 366, f.9v). As the Ormesby Psalter Tree is unusual in both scale and format, this comparison warrants further investigation.
The figures in the upper lights of the windows of the north aisle of St. Peter’s predate the late fourteenth-century fabric of the church. They include eleven standing prophets, and four seated kings, set against dark red and blue grounds and enclosed in scrolling white tendrils from which grow vine leaves and bunches of grapes [Figs. 2-5].
Each prophet holds a scroll inscribed with his name, and sometimes with part of a prophecy associated with him, while the kings were labelled on the branches of the tree immediately above their heads. They are accompanied by a kneeling knight in armour, who proffers a model of a church or chapel, and bears a shield emblazoned argent a cross engrailed gules.
The window from which these figures come must have formed part of the previous glazing scheme of the church, and is usually dated c.1310-30. The knight has been identified as Sir Simon Drayton (d.1357), the father-in-law of Sir Henry Greene who rebuilt the church. In 1317 Sir Simon applied for a licence to alienate lands to support a chantry chapel at Lowick dedicated to the Virgin. Jesse Trees in windows were often associated with dedications to the Virgin, and the fragments probably came from this chapel. The window must have been of considerable size: at least five or six lights, with the prophets arranged up either side and the kings in the centre. The knight perhaps formed part of a bottom register of figures, similar to that in the Jesse Tree window at St Mary’s, Shrewsbury [Figs 6 and 7].
The Lowick knight is painted in a different style to the kings and prophets, and he kneels against a dark red patterned background decorated with horizontal bands containing heraldic motifs and scrolling foliage. Sadly the figures of Jesse, Christ and the Virgin are lost; they were possibly removed in 1644 when the churchwardens’ accounts record payments for the ‘glazing of the windows where the crucifixion and scandalous pictures were taken down’.
The Lowick figures are monumental in scale, with elongated proportions, varied stances and lively gestures. They wear richly coloured and patterned robes in contrasting colours, falling in broad swathes around their bodies. In this they are typical of much early fourteenth-century glass and manuscript painting. Peter Newton, as noted by Richard Marks in his CVMA survey of stained glass in Northamptonshire, drew parallels with the De Lisle Psalter (BL Arundel MS 83 II) and the Westminster Abbey sedilia paintings (c.1307), and with the mannerism of the works of the later thirteenth century such as the Oscott Psalter (BL Add MS 50000). Caution is needed with such comparisons however. As CVMA author, Tim Ayers, has recently pointed out, much English glass of the same date is comparable to the De Lisle Psalter Majesty Master and many aspects of both fall within wide international trends.
The mannerist Lowick style, with its contorted poses, dramatic gestures and individualised faces and dress, is easily distinguishable from the elegant restraint of the so-called ‘Court’ style and prevailing international trends in both glazing and manuscript painting. Indeed, the combination of monumentality and vigour with the highly expressive faces is in direct contrast to the solid gravity of the international style. The diversity of pose and expression can more usefully be compared with other midlands Jesse Trees, in particular those at Madley (Herefordshire) and Gedney (Lincolnshire) the latter sharing some of the dramatic gestural and facial language of Lowick [Figs 8 and 9].
Again, caution is needed. Writing in the 1930s the stained glass historian, Christopher Woodforde (1907 -1962), argued that seven midlands Jesse Trees were attributable to the same workshop, but some of the stylistic and compositional features which they share are integral to Jesse Trees in general rather than associated with particular workshops or groups. Indeed, the distinctive style of the Lowick figures finds few close parallels in surviving Midlands glass; only a head of Christ at the parish church of St John at Cranford St John (Northants) has been attributed to the same workshop, although given the extent of the loses to medieval glazing it is perfectly possible that the Lowick workshop was in fact highly prolific but that the rest of its output has been lost.
Comparisons have also been drawn with manuscripts produced in East Anglia and the Fenlands in the first quarter of the fourteenth century. In particular, the striking similarity of the Lowick figure style and settings to that seen on fol.9v of the Ormesby Psalter [Fig. 10] was noted by Marks, who astutely observed that the Jesse Tree in the psalter gave an impression of the original appearance of the window.
The Lowick figures are both less exaggerated and less finely painted than those in the psalter but share many of the same features, in particular the elongated proportions, the almost contorted poses and dramatic gestures, the variety of physiognomies and hair styles and the individualised, expressive faces [Figs. 11 – 12].
The Ormesby Psalter was executed in a series of campaigns, with the psalm text and earliest decoration datable to the late thirteenth century, while the binding and fore-edges were not completed till after 1340. On stylistic grounds its Jesse Tree can be dated to the main campaign of c.1310-20 and I argue elsewhere that it is possibly more narrowly datable to c.1317-1318. How can this likeness between works in different media executed at approximately the same time but 100 miles apart be explained?
The Ormesby Jesse Tree is painted on a single leaf which now forms a magnificent frontispiece to the Book of Psalms. However, its appearance deviates considerably from what its commissioner originally envisaged. The leaf is inserted into the manuscript back to front so that it forms the left-hand rather than the right-hand side of the opening [Fig. 13].
There was a tradition of full-page Beatus initials (based on the “B” of the words Beatus vir… (“Blessed is the man…”) at the start of Psalm 1 facing the opening of the psalms in thirteenth-century psalters, but the Ormesby Psalter has two Bs facing each other across an opening. This is not was what intended. Codicological evidence shows that the Jesse Tree page was made as a replacement for the original Beatus page: the text on the reverse side of the Jesse Tree (f.9r) ends at precisely the same place as that on back of folio 10. Not only was the leaf tipped in backwards, facing the page it was meant to replace, but it has been significantly altered by the addition of the kneeling monk and bishop below the B, painted over the opening lines of the psalm text in c.1330-40.
The insertion of the new leaf must have been a costly procedure. The painting of the Jesse Tree is of an extremely high quality: dancing figures, with contorted poses and dramatic gestures, highly individualised faces and dress, and drapery modelled in deep folds are set against punched and stamped burnished gold grounds in compartments formed by the criss-crossing branches of the Tree. Not only are both materials and execution both of the best, but the Ormesby Psalter is a large manuscript. Financially alone, the decision to remove and replace a whole leaf would have required the patron’s direct involvement. What could have prompted such a move?
The insertion of a new full-page Jesse Tree page allowed the patron/s of this phase of the manuscript’s decoration prominently to assert their association with the partially completed manuscript whose production they had taken on (to paraphrase W.S. Gilbert, I am not sure whose psalter it was but I know whose it is now). Two small donor figures kneel in the lower half of the body of the B, bearing the arms of the Foliot and Bardolf families (gules a bend azure and azure three cinquefoils or respectively) [Fig. 14].
The Foliots and Bardolfs were important East Anglian landowners, with close personal and feudal connections both with each other and with the John de Warenne, last Earl of Surrey and Sussex (d.1346). Their arms appear elsewhere in the psalter alongside those of Warenne, and they, or perhaps Warenne himself, are the most likely commissioners for the phase of work which included the Jesse Tree.
The inclusion of donor figures does not on its own seem enough to account for the decision to abandon the original Beatus page, however. This was presumably taken because the space left around the text on fol.10r was considered inadequate for the design the artist and patron had in mind. Even without later changes, the design of the Jesse Tree page is highly unusual. In place of the typical format of an initial in the top corner of the text block containing both Jesse and his Tree, accompanied by a clearly defined border, here B is in the centre of the top half of the page, the text block has shrunk and the Tree and its inhabitants expanded to fill all the available space. Jesse reclines at the bottom of the page and the branches form vesica-shaped medallions which rise in a symmetrically ordered structure, with enthroned kings in the centre and standing prophets in the outer lancets. Image takes priority over text; the B itself has almost vanished among the writhing strands of foliage and jostling figures, the line of display script below it is distinctly cramped, and the trunk even dissects the original text block concealing a number of letters. There is none of the ostentatious display of blank parchment usual in deluxe manuscripts: the outer leaves push at the edges of the parchment, and the whole impression is of an artist struggling to fit a large design into a much smaller space that that for which it was intended.
Why does the format of the Ormesby Jesse Tree differ so much from contemporary Beatus pages? Was it created in imitation of the layout of a window rather than within the tradition of manuscripts Jesse Trees? Both stylistic and circumstantial evidence support this contention. The distinctive style of the Ormesby Jesse Tree figures is not reproduced anywhere else in the manuscript, even in those pages attributable to the same workshop. The ordered structure of the Tree is strongly reminiscent of the layout of a window, and the composition of the reclining Jesse and the three kings immediately above him are closely comparable with those in the Jesse Tree at St Mary’s, Shrewsbury. The Ormesby Jesse Tree was not copied from that at Lowick, however: none of the surviving figures at Lowick accord precisely in either dress or stance with those in the psalter, and it is not possible to re-create the Lowick window using the Ormesby Jesse Tree as a model. The workshop was evidently active in the area, however, as demonstrated by the Cranford Christ. Could the Ormesby Jesse Tree be a record of a lost window executed by this workshop in another local church?
Fascinatingly, the Foliots, whose arms appear on the Ormesby Jesse Tree page, historically held lands in the immediate vicinity of Lowick, at neighbouring Aldwincle, at Great Harrowden and at Burton Latimer. They also had lands near Brackley and Wellingborough in the mid-thirteenth century, and were perhaps seeking to consolidate their connections with the area: the last Richard Foliot died in 1325, at which point he was engaged to Elizabeth Seagrave, daughter of Nicholas de Seagrave of Barton Seagrave, marshal of England and a major local landowner. Could the artist of Ormesby Jesse Tree, perhaps on the instructions of his Foliot patron, have been inspired by a particular window in a church in the neighbourhood of Lowick? Does the Ormesby Jesse Tree form a record of a lost window in one of the Northamptonshire churches patronised by the Foliots? Although necessarily speculative, this possibility raises many questions about the nature of the connections between manuscripts and stained glass, the relationships between patrons and artists, and the way that ‘style’ could be transferred between different media.
T. Ayers, The Medieval Stained Glass of Wells Cathedral, CVMA 4, 2 vols., 2004
S. Brown, ‘The Fourteenth-Century Stained Glass of Madley’, Medieval Art, Architecture and Archaeology at Hereford, BAA Conference Transactions XV, David Whitehead., ed., 1995, 122-31
P. Hebgin-Barnes, The Medieval Stained Glass of the County of Lincolnshire, CVMA 3, 1996, esp. 98-106 on Gedney
F. Law-Turner, The Ormesby Psalter, Bodleian Library Press, forthcoming.
R. Marks, Medieval Stained Glass of Northamptonshire, CVMA, 1998, pp.126-41, with bibliography
C. Woodforde, ‘A Group of Fourteenth-Century Windows showing the Tree of
Jesse’, Journal of the British Society of Master Glass Painters, 6, 1935-7,
P.A. Newton, ‘Schools of Glass Painting in the Midlands 1275-1430’,
unpublished PhD thesis, Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London,
For Foliot connections with Northamptonshire see A History of the County of Northampton, 3, 1930, pp. 164-168; and pp. 180-186; 4, 1937, pp.178-85; Book of Fees commonly called Testa de Nevill, II, AD 1242-93, 1923, ps.938, 940, 1175 and 1223.
This month’s puzzle shows the Lactation (Lactatio) of the Virgin to St Bernard of Clairvaux. [Fig. 1]
St Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153) was a monk who reformed the order of Cistercian monks in the 12th century. He was canonized in 1170, and became patron saint of his place of birth, Burgundy. He is notable for founding the abbey of Clairvaux and for promoting the cult of the Virgin Mary.
Our panel shows the saint praying before the Virgin and Child. The Virgin holds her hand over an exposed breast, a reference to the miracle of lactation when she appeared to the saint and wetted his lips with a few drops of the milk that nourished Jesus, thus giving him the knowledge and skill to preach and write.
The first known literary reference to the miracle occurs in a manuscript written between 1313 and 1330 by a mendicant friar but elements of the story can be traced back to twelfth-century sources.
Our panel is of Flemish origin and has been dated to c.1550.
The roundel itself comes from an extensive collection of sixteenth-century glass in the church of St Michael at Begbroke, (Oxfordshire), donated by Thomas Robinson (1780–1848), a wealthy Oxford-based grocer who was also a partner in a local banking business.
The panels were installed in the late 1820s after Robinson had purchased Begbroke Manor and thoroughly restored the adjacent church at his own expense. Innovations to the building included new windows, the removal of the south porch, the construction of buttresses at the corners of the chancel and of the nave, and the provision of a new font.
The glass was arranged by the well-known glazier, Thomas Willement (1786–1871) who also made some armorial panels for the church.
Robinson’s interest in, or access to, collecting old glass was almost certainly inspired by his relationship with his uncle, William Fletcher (1739–1826), another Oxford-based banker, who was thrice Mayor of the city, 1782-3, 1796-7 and 1809-10, and a figure best remembered today for his generous gifts of displaced medieval glass to the parish church of St Bartholomew at Yarnton (Oxfordshire), a village less than two miles from Begbroke. Robinson was Fletcher’s heir. He was Mayor of Oxford in 1817-18. In 1849, after his death, some of glass he had installed at Begbroke glass was removed to another nearby church, St James at Stonesfield (Oxfordshire).
For more information about the Lactatio, see: J. France, Medieval Images of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, Kalamazoo, 2007, especially pp 205 – 237.