The church of St Mary the Virgin was once the most prominent in Shrewsbury, a border town between England and Wales. It was built in the 12th Century on the site of an earlier Anglo-Saxon church (c.970).
St Mary’s greatest treasure is its remarkable collection of stained glass, the most impressive piece being the 'Jesse Window'.
The oldest stained glass in Shrewsbury, it was made for Greyfriars chapel c.1330-1353. Following the friary’s dissolution (closure) in 1538, the Jesse Window was moved to St Chad’s church where it stayed for 250 years. It was rescued and brought to St Mary’s in 1791 after St Chad's partially collapsed.
The imagery in this huge window originates from the Bible's Book of Isaiah, which includes the prophecy of Jesus Christ being descended from the “stem of Jesse”. Jesse was a humble farmer said to be descended from Abraham, a prominent figure in Christianity.
The window has undergone several changes over time.
Upon relocation to St Mary’s church in 1791, the glass was rearranged and new panels were added to fit the East window frame. In the 1850s, local master craftspeople restored the window and added an inscription at the top, which could not be seen from the ground, but we can just about read here: “D Evans, Wyle Cop, Shrewsbury restored the whole of this window 1859”.
Most of the tracery (stonework framing the glass) belongs to this later period, including this little piece of glass bearing the letter ‘E’. Is it a nod to the Victorian craftsman David Evans?
The extensive Victorian restoration is reflected in the different colours on the window. The original, Medieval colours are subtle yet vibrant, with gold (symbolising status), deep red (love of God), and blue (wisdom).
On the other hand, Victorian colours are more intense and dramatic: mainly bright red and green – symbolising resurrection. These are seen on the restored panels as well as the new additions.
The window shows the family tree of Jesus Christ, stemming from Jesse.
At the base, Jesse lies sleeping across three, central glass panels. A central stem rises from him and grape vines twist around generations of kings and prophets upward to the Holy Family: Mary holding Jesus in her arms, with her husband Joseph nearby.
Directly above Jesse is his youngest son David, who was chosen to be the King of Israel. Jesus is considered a direct descendant of the House of David.
Here, King David is shown holding a harp, as he was said to be a skilful musician credited with composing many Christian psalms (musical prayers).
The window shows 15 other kings all crowned, wearing royal robes, and seated on thrones surrounded by vines. Apart from King David, they all hold swords or sceptres demonstrating their power and warrior-like status.
The outer two columns of stained glass on each side of the window depict 21 Old Testament prophets. They hold vine tendrils and many are pointing up and inwards towards Jesus Christ.
Their names are followed by ‘PPha’, short for ‘propheta’, the Latin word for prophet.
The family tree finishes with Joseph and Mary, both seated on thrones. Mary holds baby Jesus while Joseph holds a spray of white lily, a symbol of his wife’s purity.
To the left of Joseph is St Matthew, who listed the genealogy of Jesus from Abraham in his account of Jesus’ life. His words are the basis for the story of this window.
On the opposite side is St Luke, holding a scroll and a quill. He provided a slightly different account of Jesus’ ancestry, tracing further back to Adam, “the son of God”.
At the top of the window are three scenes from Jesus’ life: the Virgin Mary and Child with St Anne (right); the Baptism (left); the central Crucifixion scene completes the family tree.
The wealthy family who paid for the window are also shown, in a demonstration of power and influence.
Sir John de Charleton (1268-1353) donated the window, and is depicted below the tree of Jesse next to his sons, his wife Hawis and daughters.
The panels are the only surviving image of Shrewsbury residents from their time.
Lady Hawis (1291- c.1345) was the heiress of nearby Powys Castle in Wales. She fought her uncles for her inheritance and earned the names ‘Hawis the Hardy’ and ‘the Powerful’. She married Sir John de Charleton in 1309 and had four children.
The castle battlements surrounding these family portraits are decorated with leopard heads, known as “loggerheads”, which still feature on Shrewsbury's coat of arms today.
Between Hawis and John are Mary with Jesus, and King Edward III, king when the window was made. All the figures kneel towards Mary and the Holy Child. Below a Norman French inscription reads: “Pray for Sir John de Charleton, who had this window made, and for Lady Hawis his wife”.
The Jesse Window is amongst the finest stained glass in the country.
A rich variety of coloured glass adorns historic churches, but they deteriorate and become damaged over time. Today, we can enjoy these ancient windows and learn their stories thanks to expert conservation work.
Medieval East 'Jesse' window at St Mary, ShrewsburyChurches Conservation Trust
The Jesse Window and others at St Mary's are in need of repair, and we urgently need support to enable continued enjoyment of this unique artefact.
Find out more: visitchurches.org.uk
Marie Carter, Jessica Clarke, Chloe Meredith, Kae Ono, Sue Wilkinson and Lingbo Zhou.
Art Camera photography by Google Arts & Culture.