Sunday, December 4, 2022

O Flower of Jesse's Stem!

Please note that this essay is undergoing revision at this time (December 2022). As a result, its structure and some content may be subject to change.


Tree of Jesse
Cutting from an Antiphonary
German, c. 1115-1125
Cleveland, Museum of Art
Jesse sits at the bottom of this image, with two branches 
emerging from his chest. These branches coil around to 
envelope some of his descendants.  However, straight 
above his head is his most important lineage, that of David.
Directly above him is David himself, then above him is the
Virgin Mary. Above Mary is Jesus, in whom the branches 
of Jesse's lineage converge and flower.



The third of the "O Antiphons", for December 19th reads:  
"O Flower of Jesse’s stem, you have been raised up as a sign for all peoples; kings stand silent in your presence; the nations bow down in worship before you. Come, let nothing keep you from coming to our aid."  
This title "Flower of Jesse's stem" derives from the lineage of Jesus.  He is a descendant of Jesse, father of King David, and the presumed subject of the prophecy of Isaiah (read on the Second Sunday of Advent in Year A), which reads:

"But a shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse,
and from his roots a bud shall blossom.
The spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him:
a spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
A spirit of counsel and of strength,
a spirit of knowledge and of fear of the LORD,
and his delight shall be the fear of the LORD.
Not by appearance shall he judge,
nor by hearsay shall he decide,
But he shall judge the poor with justice,
and decide fairly for the land’s afflicted.
He shall strike the ruthless with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall slay the wicked.
Justice shall be the band around his waist,
and faithfulness a belt upon his hips.
Then the wolf shall be a guest of the lamb,
and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat;
The calf and the young lion shall browse together,
with a little child to guide them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
together their young shall lie down;
the lion shall eat hay like the ox.
The baby shall play by the viper’s den,
and the child lay his hand on the adder’s lair.
They shall not harm or destroy on all my holy mountain;
for the earth shall be filled with knowledge of the LORD,
as water covers the sea.

On that day,
The root of Jesse,
set up as a signal for the peoples—
Him the nations will seek out;
his dwelling shall be glorious.
(Isaiah 11:1-10)
 
This image, of Jesse as the root and Jesus as the flower (sometimes also translated as rod), resulted in one of the best known of medieval images, the Tree of Jesse.  This is not to be confused with the modern "Jesse tree" which is a sometimes charming Advent decoration, a kind of Advent calendar, especially in use in homes with children.  Instead, this is a serious didactic image, making visual the human ancestry of Jesus.
Jesse Tree, Stained Glass
French, c. 1140-1144
St. Denis, Abbey of St. Denis

In most of the Jesse Tree images, we see Jesse, asleep, either lying down or sitting up.  Out of his body (generally, but not always from his mid-section, the location of his "loins") grows a tree or a vine, which branches as it grows.  The branches are occupied by his descendents, often shown in chronological order.  Most of the images choose to illustrate only a few of the descendents, although David is usually prominent.  Very rarely all the generations named in the beginning of Matthew's Gospel are shown.
 
Jesse Tree, Stained Glass
French, c. 1150-1170
Chartres, Cathedral


 Among the best known of the medieval Jesse trees are two famous stained glass windows, dated to the middle decades of the 12th century, at the abbey of St. Denis outside Paris and at Chartres cathedral in Ile-de-France.  These two immensely important churches were the hatching grounds for the Gothic style in architecture and embellishment that would dominate most of Europe for the following 300 years.  Their influence was widespread. 
 
Therefore, it is not surprising that the image of the tree of Jesse would appear in other forms of art during the remainder of the Gothic period.  It appears in particular in manuscripts painted all over Europe during these centuries.

Manuscript Illumination

Tree of Jesse
From the Siegburg Lectionary
German, c. 1125-1150
London, British Library
MS Harley 2889, fol. 4r


Tree of Jesse
From the Lambeth Bible
English, c. 1140-1150
London, Lambeth Palace



Tree of Jesse
Single Leaf from a Psalter
English (Canterbury), c. 1155-1160
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 724, fol. 1v



Master of Simon de Saint Albans and Workshop, Tree of Jesse
From a Bible
French (Champagne), c. 1170-1180
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 16746, fol. 7v


Tree of Jesse
From a Gospel Book
French (Champagne), c. 1185-1195
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 11534, fol. 207v



Tree of Jesse
From a Bible
French (Troyes), c. 1190-1200
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 8823, fol. 9v


Often the image of the branching vine or tree makes ingenious use of the shape of the page and takes advantage of the letter L, which is the initial letter of the opening of the Gospel of Matthew in the Latin Vulgate, "Liber generationis".  Jesse is shown lying in sleep as the horizontal bar of the letter, while his descendents occupy the vertical bar.

At other times it spreads out and occupies the entire space of the page, often with many branches.  

Master of the Ingeborg Psalter, Tree of Jesse
From the Ingeborg Psalter
French, c. 1195
Chantilly, Musée Condé
MS 94695, fol. 14v



Master of Blanche of Castille, Jesse Tree
From the Psalter of St. Louis and Blance of Castille
French (Paris), ca. 1225
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Arsenal 1186, fol. 15v



Jesse Tree
Book of Hours
French (Rouen). 1475-1500
The Hague, Koninklijk Bibliotheek
MS 133 D 17, fol. 24r
 
 and nearby England:

Jesse Tree
Windmill Psalter
English (London), 1280-1299
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 102, fol.1v


Master of Queen Mary's Psalter, Jesse Tree
English (Canterbury), 1310-1330
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS G 53, fol. 6r
 
 to the northern territories of the Low Countries and Germany

Jesse Tree
Stained Glass
German (Swabian)
ca. 1280
New York
Metropolitan Museum
 

Jesse Tree
From a Psalter
German (Augsburg), c. 1230-1255
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 280, fol. 2r
This image is unusual in that, instead of ancestors of Christ sitting on the boughs of the Tree, it is incidents from the New Testament depicting the Annunciation, Nativity, Presentation and Baptism of Jesus that appear.



 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 





















and south to Spain, where the lower section of the central pillar of the famed Portico de la Gloria at the great shrine of Santiago de Compostela is decorated with a Jesse tree:
Santiago de Compostela, Portico de la Gloria
Spanish, 12th century
Santiago de Compostela, Cathedral


and to Italy, where the influence of the still existing classical style, plus the ethereal style of the nearby Byzantine Empire, resulted in such beautiful works as the Bible of Pope Clement VII.

Bible of Clement VII
Italian (Bologna), ca. 1267
Paris, Bibliotheque Nationale de France
MS Latin 22, fol. 346


Bible of Clement VII, Jesse Tree
detail view



Bible
Northern French, 1229
New York, Morgan Library
MS M 163, fol. 326r

Nearly all the images include Mary independently, in the level just below that of Jesus or she is shown holding the Infant Jesus. However, there are some variations.

Images from the 14th century on begin to focus on Mary herself.  She is shown at the center of the composition as the true, direct offshoot of Jesse himself.


Jesse Tree
From Bible historiale of Gerard des Moulins
French (St. Omer), c 14th Cemtury
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 152, fol. 467v


Jesse Tree
From the Heures de Louis de Savoie
France (Savoy), c. 1445-1460
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 9473, fol. 102


Master of Cornelis Croesinck, Jesse Tree
Croesinck Hours
Dutch, 1489-1499
New York, Morgan Library
MS M 1078, fol. 112v



Jesse Tree
From a Psalter
Flemish (Bruges), c. 1500
Paris, Irish Cultural Center
MS E.1, fol . 42 


In the years bracketing 1500, at the very end of the Middle Ages are images that directly link the Tree of Jesse with the Annunciation, as for example, this image attributed to the Master of the Older Prayer Book of Maximilian I.

Master of the Old Prayer Book of Maximilian I
From the Breviary of Eleanor of Portugal
Flemish, 1495-1515
New York, Morgan Library
MS M 52, fol. 388v
Finally, one image combines many themes.  In similar fashion to the Breviary of Eleanor of Portugal, it combines the image of the Annunciation with the Tree of Jesse.  But, it also includes an image of Adam and Eve, also ancestors of Jesus, as they are of all humans, just above the figures of Gabriel and Mary.  Not only are they part of the ancestry of Jesus, they are also the means through which sin and death entered the world.  It is their Fall that was healed by Christ, beginning at the Annunciation. 

Hours of the Virgin
French (Rouen), 1495-1505
New York, Morgan Library
MS M 174, fol. 21r
© M. Duffy, 2011



Sunday, November 27, 2022

On the Iconography of Christmas

 

Luisa Roldan (called La Roldana), Rest on the Flight into Egypt
Spanish, c. 1690
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Advent/Christmas Season has figured heavily in the history of Western Christian art from the early fourth century onward.  There is a tremendous amount of material available and over the years of this blog I have written a great deal about the iconography attached to the various days and weeks.  To make the material more accessible to readers I have gathered below most of these essays into a series of useful links for connecting to what I have already written on the various subjects (much as I have done for Holy Week and the Easter season).  

Although the specific readings these images reflect do not form part of the liturgy in every year, each year does touch on most of them.  




Please note that occasionally one or more of the essays mentioned may be unavailable at times.  This is because I am attempting to keep the essays updated with new images or images that have become available in more detailed versions, thanks to improving technology and expanded access to images.

So, here goes...

Last Week of Advent/Preparation for Christmas

The O Antiphons.  These are a series of antiphons (short verses that precede and follow the prayer of the Magnificat at Evening Prayer (Vespers) during the last week of Advent.  They offer meditations on the significance of the Child born on Christmas Day.

The O Antiphons (introduction)  click here

  • O Wisdom, O Holy Word of God!  click here
  • O Flower of Jesse's Stem!  click here 
  • O Key of David! Come, break down the walls of death!  click here   
  • O Radiant Dawn! O Sun of Justice!  click here  
  • O King of All the Nations!  click here  
  • O Emmanuel! Savior of all people, come and set us free! click here

Nativity (central group of figures) from the Metropolitan Museum Christmas Tree
Italian (Naples), Late 18th Century
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Consolation of Saint Joseph 

An angel reveals to Joseph that Mary's pregnancy comes from God, not from a man.  Joseph acts on his dream and marries Mary, becoming the guardian of the Son of God.

Circle of Antoine Le Moiturier, Nativity
French, c. 1450
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Birth of Jesus


The Nativity

Mary and Joseph are unable to find lodging in a crowded Bethlehem and find shelter in a stable (or cave) where Mary gives birth and places her child in the manger where the animals usually feed.  Angels announce the good news of his birth to the shepherds in the fields, who come and adore him. 


The Holy Family

Images of the three members of the Holy Family. 

  • Jesus, Mary and Joseph! – The Holy Family  click here  

Altarpiece with Scenes of the Infancy of Christ
Northern French, Late 15th Century
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art


The Aftermath


The Visit of the Wise Men

Wise men, led by a star, come from the East to visit the newborn child and offer him rich gifts.

  • How the Image of the Wise Men Was Formed  click here


The Holy Innocents

King Herod the Great knows about the prophecy of a new king in Israel.  After hearing the story of the wise men he decides to ensure his throne by eliminating this new born king.  So, he orders the massacre of all infant boys under 2 years old.  

  • The Holy Innocents – Nearly Forgotten Baby Martyrs  click here


The Flight into Egypt  

An angel warns Joseph about Herod's plans and orders him to take the child and his mother to Egypt to wait for Herod's death.  The Holy Family flees.

  • The Flight into Egypt -- The Holy Refugees, The "Simple" Images (Part I of a Series)  click here
  • The Flight Into Egypt -- The Variations (Part 2 of a Series)  click here
  • The Rest on the Flight into Egypt, Part I of 3  click here  
  • The Rest on the Flight into Egypt, Part II of 3  click here  
  • The Rest on the Flight into Egypt, Part III of 3  click here


Related Feasts  

The beginning of the new year brings with it two feasts that are reflections on the Christmas story rather than narrative depictions of the Gospels.  These are the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, on January 1 and the feast of the Holy Name of Jesus on January 3.


I wish you all a Blessed Christmas and a Healthy New Year!


Christmas Tree with 18th Century Presepio
Italian, 18th Century (tree modern)
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

For those of you who live in the New York area or who may be visiting, the glorious Christmas Tree with its 18th Century Italian Presepio figures (sometimes known as the Angel Tree) is again on view.  This year it can be visited until January 8, 2023.  As always, it is well worth the visit.  


© M. Duffy, 2021, 2022.


Friday, November 18, 2022

“Jesus Christ is Lord” – Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe

Christ in Majesty, Codex Aureus of Lorsch
German, c. 778-830
Alba Julia (RU), Biblioteca Documenta Batthyaneum
MS R II 1, fol. 72v

Jesus said to his disciples:
"When the Son of Man comes in his glory,
and all the angels with him,
he will sit upon his glorious throne,
and all the nations will be assembled before him.
And he will separate them one from another,
as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats."
Matthew 25:31-32

Portion of Gospel for the Solemnity of Christ the King,
Year A

The idea of Jesus as king of the universe goes back to the earliest decades of Christian life. In Philippians 2:9-11, written sometime between 55 and 63 AD, St. Paul quotes what is believed to be one of the earliest Christian hymns which proclaims “Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” at whose name “every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth” (Philippians 2:11 and 10).
 
In Christian art, however, the visual representation of Christ as King and Lord of the universe took a while to develop. It was not until the 4th century, when Christianity had become a tolerated religion and was free to construct buildings specifically for Christian worship, that this image began to appear. Earlier, images of Christ, made during the days of persecution and a need for concealment, had been symbolic (such as the well-known sign of the fish) or had been disguised (as for instance, the image of the Good Shepherd or the Philosopher). 1  With the easing of these pressures, and the accompanying sudden acquisition of Imperial favor and Imperial involvement; as well as in the course of thrashing out the Church’s understanding of the nature of Jesus as both human and divine, these images were superseded by others which reflected the kingly understanding already apparent in the hymn quoted by St. Paul.

Augustus Primaporta,
Roman, 1st century
Vatican, Vatican Museums











Developing the Iconography


The obvious place to which 4th century Christians looked for ideas in how to portray the human-divine person of Jesus as King was to already existing images of the Emperor. These images went back as far as the time of Augustus in the early 1st century (as for instance in the Augusta Primaporta).















But they were also as recent as Constantine’s own colossal statue of around 315. This gigantic statue, parts of which can be seen today in the Capitoline Museum in Rome, was placed around 315 in the secular basilica, now known as the Basilica of Constantine, close to the Coliseum. Modeled on the famous colossal statue of the god, Zeus, at Olympus, it showed Constantine seated, holding a scepter in his upraised right hand. Reconstructions suggest that he held an orb in his now missing left hand.

Colossal Statue of Constantine
(Computer reconstruction)
Rome, 4th century
The marble parts are today in the Capitoline Museum in Rome


It is, therefore, not surprising that the earliest images of Christ as King portray Him in a similar way. In one of the two apse mosaics from the tomb of Constantine’s daughter, Constantina, dated to around 350, Christ appears as if an Emperor. As described by Prof. Johannes Deckers “Christ is portrayed as Pantocrator, enthroned atop a transparent blue sphere symbolizing the cosmos. Although he still wears the traditional costume of a philosopher, consisting of tunic, cloak and sandals, now his garments are either gold or purple adorned with wide gold stripes like those of the emperor. His bearded head is surrounded by a nimbus, a device employed in earlier Roman art to distinguish gods, personifications, and deified emperors. Christ hands Peter a pair of keys symbolic of the powers entrusted to him. Peter receives the keys in humility, his hands draped in his cloak. …. it is as though we are witnessing a ceremony at the court of the emperor of heaven. Peter approaches Christ in the way etiquette demanded that an official approach the emperor on receiving an appointment. .. Christ appears like the lord of heaven between fiery clouds, enthroned above the spherical cosmos. To see how explicitly Christ is cast in the role of n emperor, one need only glance at a traditional formula adapted for various rulers in Roman times.”2 


Christ in Majesty
Mosaic, Roman, c. 350
Rome, Church of Santa Costanza

However, there are also significant differences between the image of Christ and the image of the Emperor for Christ holds, not a scepter and an orb, but keys and a scroll, very much as He had in the image of the Traditio Legis. He is not the worldly ruler, but a ruler whose kingdom is one of heavenly power, based on the Scriptures.

A few decades later, in the last decade of the 4th century, the Roman church of Santa Pudenziana was decorated with an apse mosaic in which the theme of Christ as ruler is still close to that of the Emperor. This image shows Christ, seated on a throne and surrounded by the Apostles, as well as by two female figures that may represent the Old and New Testaments.

Christ in Majesty,
Mosaic, Roman, c. 400
Rome, Church of Santa Pudenziana


Compositionally, it is not unlike the silver plate, called the Missorium of Theodosius I, which is almost exactly contemporary. However, again there are points of departure between the images. In Santa Pudenziana, Christ once again holds a document which now begins to resemble a codex (a bound book, instead of a scroll) and His right hand begins to assume a blessing gesture.

Silver Plate known as the Missorium of Theodosius I
Roman, c. 388
Madrid, Academia Real de Historia

In the image used in the sixth century church of San Vitale in Ravenna, at that time the Italian capital of the emerging Byzantine Empire (based in Constantinople, today's Istanbul) Christ again holds a scroll or possibly a codex in his left hand, while presenting the wreath of heavenly victory to the emperor, who is presented to him by an angel.

Christ in Majesty
Mosaic, Byzantine, c. 526-547
Ravenna, Church of San Vitale



Byzantine Tradition


These late antique images formed the basis for the image of the Christ Pantocrator, which became widespread in Byzantine and Byzantine-derived works.

The earliest known image of the specific type known as the Pantocrator comes from the sixth century, from the monastery of Saint Catherine at Sinai.  It is a more focused view of the upper body of Christ, which appears to derive from the Christ in Majesty figures in the earlier mosaic works.

Earliest Known Image of Christ as Pantocrator
Byzantine, 6th Century
Sinai (Egypt), Saint Catherine's Monastery


This became the favored image for the Byzantine world, frequently appearing in mosaic form wherever the Greek Church was established, as far west as southern Italy and Sicily and in the Greek derived Churches of Eastern Europe and Russia.  

Apse Mosaic
Byzantine, 1148
Cefalu (Sicily), Cathedral


Apse Mosaic
Byzantine, c. 1180-1190
Monreale (Sicily), Cathedral



Icon of Christ Pantocrator
Russian, 1363
Saint Petersburg, State Hermitage Museum 



However, the Byzantine tradition also continued to use image of a full-scale seated Christ as well.

Basilius, Deesis
From the Melisande Psalter
Byzantine (Jerusalem), c. 1131-1143
London, British Library
MS Egerton 1139, fol. 12v


Ascension with Christ in Majesty 
From a Gospel Book
Eastern Mediterranean, Possible Cyprus or Palestine, c. 1175-1250
London, British Library
MS Harley 1810, fol. 135v


Deesis Mosaic
Byzantine, c. 1260-1270
Istanbul, Hagia Sophia




Elias Moskos, Christ in Majesty
Greek, 1653
Recklinghausen, Ikonen-Museum



Medieval Europe


By the middle ages, in what had been the western half of the Roman Empire, the image of the seated Christ, holding a codex and blessing appeared in many media, large and small scale.  These included book covers, book illustrations, sculpture, wall paintings and metalwork.  Examples come from all over the Christian west.

Christ in Majesty
From the Gospel Book of Godescalc
German (Rheinland), c. 781-783
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Nouvelle acquisition latine 1203, fol. 3r



Christ in Majesty and the Visitation
From Gospels of Saint-Médard de Soissons
German (Aachen), c. 800
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 8850, fol. 124r



Christ in Majesty
From the Gospels of Lothair
French (Tours), c. 849-851
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 266, fol. 2v



Christ in Majesty with Prophets and Evangelists
From the Codex Aureus of Saint Emmeram
French, c. 870-879
Munich, Bayerischen Staatsbibliothek
MS Cod. lat. 14000, fol. 6v



Christ in Majesty
From the Sacramentary of Charles the Bald
French, c. 870
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 1141, rol. 5r


Christ in Majesty
From the Benedictional of Aethelwold
English, c. 963-984
London, British Library
MS Additional 49598, fol. 70r



Christ in Majesty Surrounded by the Evangelists and their Symbols
From the Gospels of the Sainte-Chapelle
German (Treves), c. 984
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 8851, fol. 1v


Christ in Majesty
Ivory, German, 11th century
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art


By the beginning of the eleventh century (1000-1100) the image of Christ in Majesty was widespread.  Christ is seated on a throne instead of the globe, most often he holds a book in one hand and makes a gesture of blessing with the other.  He is usually surrounded by a mandorla, around which there may be angels, the evangelists or their symbols, and sometimes prophets and saints.  



The Great Alleluia
From the Bamberg Apocalypse
German (Reichenau), c. 1010
Bamberg, Staatsbibliothek Bamberg
MS Msc.Bibl.140, fol. 47v


Lintel with Christ in Majesty
French, c. 1019-1020
Saint-Genis-des-Fontaines, Abbey Church


Capital with Christ in Majesty
French, c. 1050
Paris, Musée  de Cluny, Musée nationale du Moyen Âge


Christ in Majesty
Tympanum of the West Portal
French, c. 1090
Charlieu, Church of Saint-Fortunat


Christ in Majesty
From the Shaftesbury Psalter
English, c. 1125-1150
London, British Library
MS Landsdowne 383, fol. 14v


During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries the city of Limoges in south-central France (long been famous for its enamelwork on copper and continuing this tradition of enamel painting to this day through its famous porcelain factories) produced what must have been thousands of variations on this image for use in portable altars, covers for liturgical books and other liturgical equipment.  

Only this year (2022) have I found that the manuscript illuminators of medieval Limoges produced virtually identical works.  This suggests that there was a commonly agreed upon model for producing this image in the city.

Christ in Majesty
From a Missal
French (Limoges), 12th Century
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 9438, fol. 58v


Christ in Majesty
French (Limoges), c. 1175-1200
Paris, Musée  de Cluny, Musée nationale du Moyen Âge



Book-Cover Plaque with Christ in Majesty
French (Limoges), c. 1185-1210
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art


Book-Cover Plaque with Christ in Majesty
French (Limoges), c. 1200
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art



Enamel Cover of Gospel Book with Christ in Majesty
French (Limoges), c. 12th-13th Century
London, British Library
MS Additional 27926



Christ in Majesty
Enamel book cover plaque
French, Limoges, early 13th century
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art



Plaque from a Book Cover with Christ in Majesty
French (Limoges), 13th Century
Vatican City, Musei Vaticani


These works from Limoges were spread all over Europe and must have had a very great influence on the artists in the countries that received their objects.

Christ in Majesty
From the Westminster Psalter
English (Westminster or St. Albans), c. 1300
London, British Library
MS Royal 2 A XXII, fol. 14r



Christ in Majesty
From a Psalter
French (North French), c. 1210
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 238, fol. 30v


Christ in Majesty
From Psalter of Saint Louis and Blanche of Castille
French, c. 1225
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Arsenal 1186, fol. 28r


Christ in Majesty
From the Portada del Sarmental
Spanish, c. 1235
Burgos, Cathedral


Christ in Majesty
From Images de la vie du Christ et des saints
Flemish (Hainaut), c. 1285-1290
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Nouvelle acquisition francaise 16251, fol. 51v


Christ in Majesty
From Bible historiale by Guiard des Moulins
French (Paris), c. 1300-1325
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 160, fol. 1r


The Queen Mary Master, Christ in Majesty
From the Queen Mary Psalter
English (Westminster), c. 1310-1320
London, British Library
MS Royal 2 B VII, fol. 298v

Atelier of Jean Pucelle, Christ in Majesty
From the Breviary of Belleville
French (Paris), c. 1323-1326
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS latin 10483, fol. 213r


Christ in Majesty
From Meditationes vitae Christi
Italian (Siena), c. 1330-1340
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Italien 115, fol. 4r


Niccolo di Giacomo di Nascimbene, aka Niccolo da Bologna, Christ in Majesty with Saints
Cutting from a Choir Book
Italian (Bologna), c. 1350-1375
London, British Library
MS Additional 22310, fol. 10 


Christ in Majesty
From the Breviary of Martin of Aragon
Spanish (Catalonia), c. 1398-1403 & 1420-1430
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Rothschild 2529, fol. 104v 


Christ in Majesty with the Twelve Elders
From the Liber Floridus by Lambert de Saint-Omer
Flemish (Lille), 1460
The Hague, Koninklijk Bibliotheek
MS KB 72 A 23, fol. 11v 


The Renaissance

The Renaissance period brought some changes to the use of the image of Christ in Majesty.

For one thing, it returned to use as a decoration for the semi-domes of the churches that were being built according to classical principles, first as a continuation of the mosaic tradition and later in newly realistic paintings.

Apse Mosaic of Christ in Majesty
Italian, 1297
Florence, Church of San Miniato al Monte



Boccaccio Boccaccino, Christ in Majesty with the Patron Saints of Cremona
Italian, 1506
Cremona, Cathedral


And it appeared in the newly introduced form of panel paintings.


Giotto, The Stefaneschi Triptych
Italian, c. 1330
Vatican City, Pinacoteca Vaticana



Hans Memling, Christ in Majesty Surrounded by Angels
Center of triptych
Netherlandish, 1480s
Antwerp, Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten



This visual tradition leads right up to the 20th century, with the huge mosaic of Christ in Majesty in the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D. C., executed by Jan Henryk de Rosen, completed in 1959.

Jan Henryk de Rosen, Christ in Majesty
Polish, 1959
Washington, D.C., National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception



On December 11, 1925, at the conclusion of the 1925 Holy Year, Pope Pius XI established the feast of the Kingship of Our Lord Jesus Christ, with his encyclical, Quas Primas (The first (encyclical) which). In the encyclical Pius XI traced the roots of the title in the Bible and in Sacred Tradition and its meaning for the entire world.  He fixed the date of the feast “on the last Sunday of the month of October - the Sunday, that is, which immediately precedes the Feast of All Saints”.3

On February 14, 1969, following Vatican Council II, Pope Paul VI in his motu proprio, Mysterii paschalis (The Paschal Mystery), promulgated a revised calendar of liturgical celebrations for the universal Church.4  As one of the revisions the Solemnity of Christ the King was moved to its present location of the last Sunday in Ordinary Time, as a fitting way to mark the close of the Church’s liturgical year. This move gave to the feast a slightly different, more cosmic, emphasis, an emphasis that had, in fact, been latent in the image of Christ in Majesty for centuries. For, at this time of the year, that is in the weeks leading up to and including the first Sunday of Advent (the Sunday which begins the new liturgical year), we are presented with readings that deal with the end of time and the final judgment of the world when, at His second coming, Christ will return to judge the world. Therefore, the image of Christ as King of the Universe and Lord of Time, with its undertones of relationship to scenes of the Last Judgment has found a match in the liturgical feast.

Christus vincit, Christus regnat, Christus imperat!
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1. Spier, Jeffrey; Fine, Steven; Charles-Murray, Mary; Jensen, Robin M.; Deckers, Johannes G. and Kessler, Herbert L. Picturing the Bible: the Earliest Christian Art, Catalog of the exhibition held at the Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, TX, November 28, 2007-March 30, 2008, New Haven, Yale University Press, 2007, pp. 13, 51-64. For information on this past exhibition see https://www.kimbellart.org/Exhibitions/Exhibition-Details.aspx?eid=47

2. Spier, et al., p. 95.

3. http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/pius_xi/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-xi_enc_11121925_quas-primas_en.html

4. http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/paul_vi/motu_proprio/documents/hf_p-vi_motu-proprio_19690214_mysterii-paschalis_en.html

© M. Duffy, Originally published, 2011. Revised with additional material and new images,  2022.