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Rondel Depicting Holofernes's Army Crossing the Euphrates River
Rondel Depicting Holofernes's Army Crossing the Euphrates River, 1246-48
French
Stained and painted glass
Diameter: 23 3/8 inches (59.3 cm)
Purchased with funds contributed by Mrs. Clement Biddle Wood in memory of her husband, 1930
1930-24-3
[ More Details ]

About This Stained Glass

This stained-glass medallion illustrates the biblical phrase “And [Holofernes] crossed the Euphrates and came into Mesopotamia,” from the Book of Judith. The medallion was once part of a tall window adorning the Sainte-Chapelle (consecrated 1248), the spectacular royal chapel built in Paris by King Louis IX (1215–1270) to enshrine relics of Christ’s Crucifixion.

The Book of Judith describes events before the birth of Christ. Yet the soldiers in the medallion are dressed in what medieval viewers would have recognized as the armor of thirteenth-century European crusaders (warriors in the military expeditions undertaken by Christian powers to win the Holy Lands from the Muslims). Louis IX was himself a crusader and was canonized (made a saint) by the Roman Catholic Church in 1297, partly for bringing holy relics back to France.

About The Story

The story of the Jewish heroine Judith is from the Apocrypha (books of uncertain origin that are included in the Latin and Greek versions of the Old Testament but usually omitted from Protestant Bibles). The medallion shows Holofernes’ army crossing the Euphrates River en route to attack Damascus (in present-day Syria), native city of the young widow Judith. Later in the story, Judith ingeniously and courageously gains entry to the invaders’ camp and kills Holofernes. When she shows them the enemy general’s severed head, her people rush at the invading troops, who flee in fear. Judith has saved her city.

About The Composition

One of forty panels devoted to telling stories from the Book of Judith, the medallion depicts knights on horseback crossing a river of blue-glass water with painted black ripples. On the right, a large army in close ranks is suggested by a tight cluster of helmets, a representational convention found in manuscript illuminations and other medieval works of art. On the left, the last two soldiers in the column look at each other as if engaged in conversation. The figure on the right has clearly visible features. His head is turned to face the other soldier, who is shown from the back.

Although the medallion is in good condition and much of the glass is original, it has required repairs, some of which are easy to see because they confuse the composition. For example, the pieces of white, green, and pink glass beneath the horses’ hooves are replacements, and they disrupt the wavy pattern that represents the water of the Euphrates.

Stained Glass in the Middle Ages

With the advent of Gothic architecture in the mid-1100s, stained-glass windows attained a prominent role in church design. Pointed arches and exterior buttresses enabled the medieval architect to move supporting structures to the outside of the church so that the interior, non-load-bearing walls could contain vast expanses of stained glass.

To make windows like those in the Sainte-Chapelle, artisans sketched a design on a wooden board and filled it in with small pieces of glass called quarries. To cut a quarry to fit, the glassmaker traced the desired shape with a hot grozing iron (a pointed metal rod) and then applied cold water to crack off the excess glass. Details such as hair, facial features, and fabric textures were painted on, and the glass was then heated to fuse the paint to the surface. Finally, lead strips were used to connect the quarries. This medallion is an excellent example of how the strong lines formed by these strips helped make the images legible from a distance.

For a largely illiterate public, stained-glass windows were a storytelling medium that translated the Bible into pictures. The windows provided visual representations from which people could gain a more vivid understanding of the religious stories they knew and sermons they heard.

Furthermore, medieval philosophers conceived of light as a symbol for the Divine. God was understood to be manifest in the light of the world, and stained-glass windows, relying upon exterior light to illuminate their images, were seen as revelations of God’s teaching. To theologians, stained-glass windows were also a metaphor for the Christian principle of the transformation of the soul; the interior of a church was vitalized by the warm glow of colored light just as the soul of a person was transformed when opened to the light of God.

The Sainte-Chapelle

It was typical for Christian rulers in the Middle Ages to have chapels at their palaces, but few could compete with the remarkable architecture, stained glass, sculpture, and painted decoration of Louis IX’s Sainte-Chapelle. The building—which still stands—has two stories, a common plan for private chapels. The modest lower story, which was reserved for nobles and servants of the court, supports a much taller upper story that served as the king’s private chapel. The space is filled with multicolored light filtering through more than 6,500 square feet of glass. Fifteen immense stained-glass windows line the north and south walls. About fifty feet in height, the windows contain hundreds of biblical scenes. The Museum’s medallion is from the fourth window on the chapel’s south side.

The Sainte-Chapelle was built to house holy relics Louis IX acquired from the Emperor of Byzantium. Relics are objects—such as pieces of wood, cloth, and bone—associated with Christ, the Virgin Mary, saints, or others venerated by Christians. King Louis’s two most revered relics were the Crown of Thorns that Christ wore during his mocking and Crucifixion, and a fragment of the True Cross on which Christ was crucified.

Why the Medallion Is No Longer Part of the Sainte-Chapelle

This medallion is one of three owned by the Philadelphia Museum of Art that were removed from the Sainte-Chapelle early in the nineteenth century, after the French Revolution, when the chapel was converted into a library. (The Sainte-Chapelle has since been restored; two-thirds of its original glass remains, and many of the other sections have been replaced with copies.) The three medallions, like many pieces from disassembled stained-glass windows, were sold to art dealers. In the 1820s, a Philadelphian named William Poyntell purchased the medallions on a trip to France. They were among the first important examples of medieval stained glass to come to the United States. The Sainte-Chapelle medallions entered the Museum’s collections in 1930.

This stained glass is included in Images of the Middle Ages, a set of teaching posters and resource book produced by the Division of Education and made possible by a generous grant from the Lila Wallace—Reader’s Digest Fund.
 

For more information, please contact The Division of Education by phone at (215) 684-7580, by fax at (215) 236-4063, or by e-mail at .

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