Passion and Pilgrimage: The Seven-Hundred-Year Journey of a Stained-Glass Panel

King Louis IX Carrying the Crown of Thorns

“King Louis IX Carrying the Crown of Thorns.” Tours, France, ca. 1245–48. Pot-metal glass with vitreous paint, 21 11/16 x 13 15/16 in. (55.1 x 35.4 cm), Met Cloisters. 

Crown of Thorns Reliquary

A modern reliquary (ca. 1896) containing Christ's crown of thorns, currently located in Notre-Dame de Paris. Published in Reuters, 2014 (Photographer: Philippe Wojazer).

Statue of King Louis IX, also known as Saint Louis

Eugène Guillaume, Sculpture of King Louis IX, 1878. Wood and Polychrome, located at the Palais de Justice, Paris. Published by Centre des monuments nationaux (Photographer: Etienne Revault).

Sainte-Chapelle Interior

Interior of the Sainte-Chapelle, Paris, France, consecrated 1248. Jessica E. Smith and Kevin R. Brine Charitable Trust (via Artstor).

Castile Castle Ste-Chapelle

Detail of a stained-glass window from the Sainte-Chapelle with the image of a Castle of Castile—a reference to Louis IX’s mother, Blanche of Castile. SCALA Archives, 2006 (via Artstor).

Cathedral of Tours exterior

Saint-Gatien exterior, view of apse. Clarence Ward Archive at the National Gallery of Art, Department of Image Collections (via Artstor).

unrestored glass at ste chapelle

A window in the Sainte-Chapelle prior to restoration. Published by Centre des monuments nationaux.

Langon Chapel CLoisters

The Langon Chapel at the Cloisters c. 1940. Published in Jane Hayward’s English and Medieval Stained Glass in the Collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Early Gothic Hall, the Cloisters

Early Gothic Galleries at the Met Cloisters.

Iconography

In the Early Gothic Gallery of the Cloisters there is a stained-glass panel depicting King Louis IX, canonized as Saint Louis after his death. The king, designated by his own royal crown, holds aloft a treasure of Christendom: the Crown of Thorns, derisively bestowed upon Christ by Roman soldiers preceding his death on the cross. To a viewer who wanders into the gallery in the twenty-first century, the importance of the relic is not immediately apparent. At first glance, it might look like a Christmas celebration, with a man dressed in festive red preparing to hang up a decorative wreath of holly. A glance at the plaque beside the window reveals the man’s identity and describes the ceremony depicted, though without much pomp. In the course of its life, this panel, like many works of early French stained glass, has been the focus of solemn, holy reverence by the faithful, political outrage by revolutionaries, admiration by private collectors, scrutiny by scholars, and the ambivalent gaze of museumgoers.

In the panel, the Crown of Thorns appears as a lush green wreath, a symbol the medieval viewer would easily recognize. The crown, one of a number of “Passion relics” that hold importance in the church for their association with the death of Christ, is poised atop a golden chalice, a reference to the Eucharist, the holy rite that commemorates Christ’s sacrifice. In 1239, Louis IX purchased the holy relic from his cousin, Emperor Baldwin II of Constantinople. Some of the high status of the relic was imparted to the French king as a result of the transaction; Pope Gregory IX himself declared that Louis "had been crowned with Christ's own crown,” a conviction that was proudly adopted in the French royal panegyric. Thirteenth-century stained glass programs from Paris to Poitiers illustrated the story of the pious king and his prized relic in technicolor brilliance, but none did so more splendidly than that of the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, the monumental reliquary built in the 1240s to house the Crown of Thorns along with other relics of the passion.  A new style of glasswork, termed the Court Style by later art historians, developed at the Sainte-Chapelle. Ideal as a framework for stained glass, its influence would resonate across the ateliers of thirteenth-century France

In the Early Gothic Gallery of the Cloisters there is a stained-glass panel depicting King Louis IX, canonized as Saint Louis after his death. The king, designated by his own royal crown, holds aloft a treasure of Christendom: the Crown of Thorns, derisively bestowed upon Christ by Roman soldiers preceding his death on the cross. To a viewer who wanders into the gallery in the twenty-first century, the importance of the relic is not immediately apparent. At first glance, it might look like a Christmas celebration, with a man dressed in festive red preparing to hang up a decorative wreath of holly. A glance at the plaque beside the window reveals the man’s identity and describes the ceremony depicted, though without much pomp. In the course of its life, this panel, like many works of early French stained glass, has been the focus of solemn, holy reverence by the faithful, political outrage by revolutionaries, admiration by private collectors, scrutiny by scholars, and the ambivalent gaze of museumgoers.

In the panel, the Crown of Thorns appears as a lush green wreath, a symbol the medieval viewer would easily recognize. The crown, one of a number of “Passion relics” that hold importance in the church for their association with the death of Christ, is poised atop a golden chalice, a reference to the Eucharist, the holy rite that commemorates Christ’s sacrifice. In 1239, Louis IX purchased the holy relic from his cousin, Emperor Baldwin II of Constantinople. Some of the high status of the relic was imparted to the French king as a result of the transaction; Pope Gregory IX himself declared that Louis "had been crowned with Christ's own crown,” a conviction that was proudly adopted in the French royal panegyric. Thirteenth-century stained glass programs from Paris to Poitiers illustrated the story of the pious king and his prized relic in technicolor brilliance, but none did so more splendidly than that of the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, the monumental reliquary built in the 1240s to house the Crown of Thorns along with other relics of the passion.  A new style of glasswork, termed the Court Style by later art historians, developed at the Sainte-Chapelle. Ideal as a framework for stained glass, its influence would resonate across the ateliers of thirteenth-century France.

The Crown of Thorns Atelier

As the walls of the Sainte-Chapelle were going up, some two hundred kilometers southwest of Paris, in the town of Tours, France, the construction of another masterwork of Gothic architecture was underway. The Tours Cathedral, first consecrated in 590, had already undergone countless renovations, restorations, and remodelings when a series of fires badly damaged the Romanesque exterior between 1202 and 1204. In 1241, Louis IX and the Archbishop of Tours authorized a project to rebuild the cathedral in the Gothic style, a project which would include an extensive program of stained glass in a mix of styles. The ensemble found there today includes both Gothic-era and modern pieces, the latter of which were often reconstructed from fragments of thirteenth-century glass. The Crown of Thorns panel was part of a group of windows installed in the choir which emulated the Parisian Court Style. However, at some point between 1845 and 1852, the Crown of Thorns panel was removed. Little is known about the circumstances under which the glass was excised from its original setting. Its provenance, however, is evident through comparison to glass still in situ at the Cathedral of Tours as well as textual evidence in the nineteenth-century writings of Baron François de Guilhermy.

 When the Crown of Thorns window and three companion panels first fell into the hands of John D. Rockefeller, Jr., a frequent benefactor of the Met and the donor who spearheaded the construction of the Cloisters, in 1938, they were said to have come from a church in Troyes.  However, stained-glass scholar Jane Hayward found a parallel with the Court Style of thirteenth-century Paris in the serenity of the figures and the fishhook folds of the drapery, and suggested a Parisian provenance might be more likely. This assertion threw the true origin of the panels into contention until 1980 when Linda Morey Papanicolaou, a student of Hayward, found a definitive reference in Baron de Guilhermy’s nineteenth-century “Description des localités de la France.” While describing his visit to Tours Cathedral, re-consecrated as Saint Gatien in the fourteenth century, Guilhermy referenced a particular set of stained-glass windows in which:

"a bishop stands below an edifice, holding aloft a circular green object, which seems to be the Holy Crown of Thorns. A commoner kneels with his hands clasped together…. A short, bearded man, standing, wearing a crown and red vestments, carries the Holy Crown upon a golden chalice. Two or three people follow behind him."

The first part of this account refers to one of the sister panels from Tours. The latter description concerns the window with Louis IX and the Crown of Thorns. Given both the written evidence of their Touraine provenance, and the Parisian stylistic elements, which can only be seen in a handful of other fragments among the hundreds of stained-glass panels in Saint-Gatien, Papanicolaou posits the existence of a short-lived “Crown of Thorns atelier” at Tours working in the Parisian style.

The color palette and articulation of the faces link the Crown of Thorns panel to the Court Style. In accord with the Parisian conventions of the 1240s, the figures in the Cloisters window appear graceful and serene. They are usually clothed in gold, red, green, purple, or white, and are set against a background of bright cobalt or occasionally deep red. Their faces are oval-shaped with straight noses, almond-link eyes with thick black eyebrows, and neat curls of hair tucked behind large conch-shaped ears. Significantly, the Crown of Thorns pieces from Saint-Gatien also share with Courtly panels, such as those in the Sainte-Chapelle, a focus on royal iconography and a mission to tell the story of Louis IX, revered as a pious king and crusader. Unsurprisingly, given the monument’s dual function as a reliquary, the Sainte-Chapelle’s stained glass program also features a window telling the story of Louis IX’s relationship to the Passion relics, which likely served as inspiration for the Crown of Thorns panels at Tours. The Sainte-Chapelle program suggests an indelible link between the king of Heaven and the king of France both by showing Louis IX as the recipient of Christ’s crown of thorns and by emphasizing Christ’s royal lineage from the Hebrew King David through illustrations of his family tree. The explicit use of royal iconography in the stylistic program of both monuments was engineered to increase the people’s faith in their king, but this very enterprise would place the buildings in severe danger when antiroyalist sentiment reached its height in France after 1789.

Revolution, Destruction, Reconstruction

The French Revolution wreaked havoc on the royal and religious monuments of France, which were often one in the same. The Sainte-Chapelle was decimated by the violence; a restoration program begun in the 1830s saved the building from its own ashes, but the face of the monument was completely altered. The design of the restored building was subject to the whims of its architects, who were more concerned with creating a monument to French culture inspired by their own concept of a medieval aesthetic than with restoration in the true sense, in particular by aiming to develop, according to Meredith Cohen, “a fictive Gothic unity of style” that would not have been present in the monument’s original iteration. Meanwhile, revolutionaries in Tours had damaged the spires of the Saint-Gatien, covered the stained glass with plaster, and brutally ripped the sculptural reliefs from the tympana. The nineteenth-century restoration campaign at Tours was less meddlesome than that at the Sainte-Chapelle, though equally thorough; it preserved the integrity of the artwork rather than fabricating a stylistic coherence that never existed before. Claude Andrault-Schmitte, the cathedral’s most devoted historian, notes with some delight that the stained glass at Tours has been so expertly restored, it is difficult to tell what is original and what is part of the restoration.

A series of restorations took place in the mid-1800s, the largest of which was undertaken by local glass painter Julien-Léopold Lobin. When he completed his work on the cathedral glass in 1852, he took as payment for his services a set of four panels, including “Louis IX Carrying the Crown of Thorns.” Lobin was a prominent glass painter in his own time and is said to have both created and restored stained-glass œuvres in the Gothic style for over 700 cathedrals across France. The panels enjoyed a quiet life in Lobin’s country villa in Saint-Cyr-sur-Loire under his expert care until the turn of the twentieth century, when his heirs—apparently less enamored by Gothic glass—decided to sell them. From Tours, the panels made their way north to Paris, eventually ending up in the hands of art dealers Nicolas Brimo and André Lion.

The Journey to America

In 1938, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. purchased the panels from Brimo and Lion and subsequently donated them to the new Cloisters museum, then under development. Its curator, James Rorimer, expressed his delight over the “comparatively unrestored” state of the panels, given that a massive amount of early Gothic glass had been destroyed during the French Revolution, and that many of the surviving fragments had been rearranged into mosaic-like compositions by restorers attempting preserve the works. Rorimer anachronistically installed the panels in the Romanesque Langon Chapel for the simple reason that in his estimation, it would enhance the atmosphere and “carry color around the room”. Aesthetics, rather than authenticity, were his concern. Eventually, once the museum expanded its collection of stained glass, the panels were relocated to the Early Gothic Gallery, where they adorn a luminous lancet window along with a number of contemporaneous works in a Parisian-inspired style. Though remote conceptually and geographically from the cathedral where the panels originated, one could choose to see the gallery as a holy space in its own right, where dedicated patrons come to adore images. However, the role of the image is entirely dependent upon the beholder: the American viewer today cannot fully imagine the experience of a thirteenth-century viewer, gazing upon the visage of the pious king, any more than they can know how the work of the restorer Julien-Léopold Lobin or the scholarly research of Jane Hayward and Linda Morey Papanicolaou inform the appearance and interpretation of the works before their eyes. 

Further Reading

Andrault-Schmitt, Claude. La Cathédrale de Tours. La Crèche: Geste éditions, 2010.

Cohen, Meredith. "Restoration as Re-Creation at the Sainte-Chapelle." RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics, no. 48 (2005): 135-54. Jstor.

Fougerat, Paul. "Un Ex-voto-vitrail de Saint Nicolas dans l'église Saint-Jacques-le-majeur à Cosne-sur-Loire." Arts et traditions populaires 3, No. 1 (January-March 1955): 35-36. Jstor.

Hayward, Jane, English and French Medieval Stained Glass in the Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (London: Harvey Miller Publishers and the Metropolitan Museum of Art for American Corpus Vitrearum, 2003). Internet Archive.

Lhuiler. "La Famille Lobin et la peinture sur verre en Touraine. " Bulletin de la Société archéologique de Touraine, no. 9 (1892): 97-110. Gallica.

Papanicolaou, Linda Morey. "Stained Glass from the Cathedral of Tours: The Impact of the Sainte-Chapelle in the 1240s." Metropolitan Museum Journal 15 (1980): 53-66. DOI:10.2307/1512751.

Rorimer, James J. "New Acquisitions for the Cloisters." The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 33, no. 5 (1938): 3-19. DOI:10.2307/3256261.

 

Passion and Pilgrimage: The Seven-Hundred-Year Journey of a Stained-Glass Panel