Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 3, 2003
Alyce A. Jordan Visualizing Kingship in the Windows of the Sainte-Chapelle Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols Publishers, 2001. 300 pp.; 87 b/w ills. Cloth €120.00 (2503511848)

Although the Ste-Chapelle in Paris has been featured in recent scholarship, notably by Daniel Weiss in Art and Crusade in the Age of Saint Louis (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998) and in a monographic study by Jean-Michel Leniaud and Françoise Perrot entitled La Sainte-Chapelle (Paris: Editions Nathan, CNMHS, 1991), Alyce Jordan’s book deepens our knowledge of the monument by focusing on the relation of the nave windows to the royal chapel’s function in Louis IX’s Paris. Not only does her work attempt to reconstruct the original thirteenth-century placement of the glass, but it also reveals the contemporary narrative strategies that may have influenced the language spoken in the works. Though Jordan’s investigation of literary styles in the thirteenth century narrows the field of visual compatriots of the Ste-Chapelle glass, it does not fundamentally alter the significance of the chapel as delineated by Louis Grodecki in the 1960s. As the monumental reliquary built to house the Crown of Thorns procured by Louis IX, the shrine functioned as the site of spiritual power translated from the Holy Land to Gaul. The multivalence of the program enables different scholarly views to coexist harmoniously; indeed, the author demonstrates the malleability of contemporary rhetorical devices to frame the biblical narratives of the windows of the royal chapel. Ultimately, Jordan establishes that the nuanced interrelationship of form and content in medieval literature finds its counterpart in the visual arts (55).

In her book, Jordan shows that the stained-glass ensemble forms a visual essay on kingship, with particular emphasis on the Capetian claims to sacral kingship (3). Her methodology employs contemporary trends in medieval ars poetriae as the cipher through which to read the stained-glass program. Alexander Pope’s words, “The sound must seem an echo to the sense,” have found a champion in Jordan’s analysis of the Ste-Chapelle cycle. She reviews in the appendices the major restorations undertaken in the nineteenth century and creates photomontages of the windows in their thirteenth-century state. By returning to the royal chapel in its medieval incarnation, Jordan places the Crown of Thorns in its proper Capetian setting. And by divorcing the nave windows from the Christological narrative in the hemicycle and the Apocalypse in the western rose window, she concentrates on the largely Old Testament scenes that make up the nine nave windows and culminate in the translation of the Passion relics in the tenth. The importance and originality of the author’s work strikes the reader most forcefully in her interpretation of this latter window. Contrary to the received wisdom that the window recounts the history of the True Cross from the time of Constantine and Helena, Jordan resurrects the original disposition of glass to dispel this inaccurate if compelling fantasy and asserts that the window in fact describes the history of the kings of France, thereby mirroring the biblical themes depicted in the rest of the chapel. Joshua carrying the Ark of the Covenant becomes a premonition of Louis IX carrying the Crown of Thorns in the Relics window, thereby casting the French king in a sacred lineage of royalty; thus her study weaves medieval strands of literary composition together with biblical stories and contemporary history to render a cloak that could only have been fashioned in the court of Louis IX.

Various aspects of kingship are highlighted in the Ste-Chapelle stained glass: the importance of dynastic continuity realized through marriage and procreation, just rule, military defense of the Church, and Coronation. In Jordan’s “vast pictorial genealogy” (19), the glazed biblical stories become ancestral portraits that do not stare back blankly at their progeny but instead speak in animated prose to their thirteenth-century audience. As Gabrielle Spiegel demonstrated in her study of the Grandes Chroniques, the verbal strategy that helped to forge the links between kings past and present was the use of prose, which lent greater authenticity to the conflation of the present moment in time with sacred history. The presence of Saint Louis in the relics window surpasses the status of a donor portrait by the transfer of the Crown of Thorns to France, catapulting both his person and his realm into the space shared by Christ and his biblical precursors. Because of the constant interweaving of past and present, the history of the Passion relics is subsumed into the history of the Capetian dynasty, which is in turn modeled on the template of royalty delineated in the Old Testament windows.

How do these methods of narrative composition work when applied to the visual arts? Following the lead of Geoffrey of Vinsauf, Jordan considers the audience of the Ste-Chapelle primarily as listeners. In tracing the use of narrative techniques such as amplificatio and repetition, she reveals in the first two chapters how the storyteller, whether he recounts his tale in words or images, approaches the blank page in the same way. In order to emphasize the royal lineage of the twelve tribes of Israel, the Book of Numbers window is filled with a series of princes being crowned. (Say it three times and it is true!) Thus, rather than being symptomatic of creative exhaustion, the repetition serves an overriding ideological purpose. Similarly, the emphasis on Joshua as an able warrior signifies his commitment to justice, and recurrent images of Old Testament leaders in dialogue with the Israelites underscore the king’s obedience to the law. The stained-glass program of the nave, like the verso sculpture of the west façade of Reims Cathedral, serves as a Mirror of Princes, reiterating the principles of good government in visual exempla.

Chapter 3 deals with the distinctive treatment of the tracery narratives found above the lancets, and their blending and conjointure of the themes of genealogy, dynastic continuity, and royal responsibility throughout the nave lancets. At times Jordan strains to maintain a one-to-one correspondence between literary and pictorial devices in the functioning of the narrative refrains; however, her interpretation is compelling whether or not it is achieved by the “gliding transitions” or “brusque schisms” used in contemporary literary composition (41). In the tracery above the window devoted to Judith, Job is depicted in triumph while his torments are found below. Indeed, there is a wonderful tango of parallel atrocities in the Judith window by the competing armies of Holfernes and the devil’s trials for Job. Rather than reinforcing the discrete nature of the individual windows, the traceries establish a complex network of intertwined, amplified, and echoed correspondences of the biblical narrative cycle. This technique, she claims, closely resembles the episodic interlacing found in French narrative literature of the thirteenth century (40).

The fourth chapter, devoted to the “material girls,” Judith and Esther, reveals the subtlety of Jordan’s scholarship (as well as her eclectic taste in music). The contrasts in the depiction of Judith and Esther range from roundels to dense surface design, to a palette of reds and blues to one dominated by yellow, to a staccatolike series of scenes to lyrical, stately vignettes that succeed one another. Indeed, Jordan establishes a wonderful parallel between Judith’s violent, action-packed life and the direct narrative style of her window, and Esther’s dignified rule, her role as a type of the Virgin and Ecclesia, and the languid style of her window. Style and content join hands and nod knowingly at the queens who gaze upon them from windows below. Which brings us to Louis IX’s marriage and his psychological relationship with his mother: Do the Judith and Esther windows speak directly to Blanche of Castile and Margaret of Provence, respectively? According to Jordan, Blanche, the great power broker of the realm both when Louis was a minor and when he was on crusade, would have found a perfect heroine in Judith, while Margaret, whose role in Louis’s life was circumscribed by her mother-in-law as well as her husband, would have found a role model of the submissive queen in Esther’s subordination to King Ahasuerus. Would the programmer of the Ste-Chapelle have been savvy enough about the psychological and political dynamics of court life to insert this gendered exegesis in the sacred history of the Crown of Thorns?

In a discussion of the relics window in chapter 5, Jordan brilliantly demonstrates how a veritable case study of Louis IX could simultaneously function as a chronicle of the kings of France. The repetitive themes of warfare and the importance of the royal crown provided a generic backdrop of recurrent monarchic activities that empowered the relics window to articulate a timeless royal agenda that fit the biblical kings, the King of Kings, and Louis IX, allowing the latter to participate in the construction of his own saintly persona (62–65). The history and legitimacy of Capetian kingship as it coalesced with biblical history was continuously reenacted in the stained-glass windows of the Ste-Chapelle, just as it was rehearsed in the Grandes Chroniques written for Philip III (64). Indeed, it almost seems as if life were imitating art when Philip the Fair has his sainted grandfather’s head divided between the Ste-Chapelle and St-Denis! Saint Louis’s head at last could repose beside the Crown of Thorns he rescued for France in the monumental reliquary he built to house it.

Visualizing Kingship in the Windows of the Sainte-Chapelle is an object lesson in painstaking research and restoration (on paper) of the thirteenth-century glass program. Jordan’s comparison of visual and narrative strategies employed in Paris during this time greatly enriches the texture of the once narrowly defined “court style” of Louis IX (74). Further, her work establishes that the royal chapel’s windows, which bear such striking formal parallels to the Bibles moralisées, are in fact diametrically opposed to them in the message they impart. The windows reflect the royal view of kingship in which priestly intermediaries are conspicuously absent, whereas the illuminated bibles urge the kings to obey the church’s guidelines communicated by the bishops. Jordan demonstrates the importance of a heredity forged both of blood and virtue, and how the stained glass exempla outwardly circumscribe the “heart’s inward plumb line” (77). It is a beautiful, readable royal tale. One cautionary note about the plates in the appendices: the photomontages are loose, which makes them ideal for reconstructing the chapel on one’s living-room floor, but they are prone to migrate if one is not vigilant.

Donna L. Sadler
Agnes Scott College