There is a final jewel at Selby Abbey; the great East Window. I told how the great fire of 1906 had put it in imminent danger of shattering and how a dedicated fire crew had protected the fragile panes with water. Of course, there has been damage over the years and subsequent restoration, but even so, the window is thought to be one of the finest medieval survivals in the country, second only to the West Window at York Minster.
Personally, although the tracery of stone in the upper reaches of the York window may be finer with the heart shaped centrepiece, I have to say I prefer the one at Selby… as much, perhaps, for its history as anything else. Somehow it seems more approachable and human, but then it is not set so far out of reach.
It is known as the Jesse window and dates from c.1330AD. There are a number of medieval Jesse windows, or fragments of them, that survive through the country. A few small panes survive of the Jesse window from York Minster, dating back to around 1170AD, which is thought to be the oldest surviving stained glass in England. The Selby window, however, is thought to be the most complete and finest of its period. In later centuries, with the Gothic revival, the subject once more became popular and we have seen some fabulous Victorian examples. But nothing as old as this.
The 70 panels of the main window are arranged over seven vertical lights. These panels trace the royal line of the kings of Israel, leading eventually to Mary and Jesus, thus establishing the claim that He was King of the Jews, of the Royal House of David. The inspiration for this motif, common in manuscripts in the medieval period, is a line in the Book of Isaiah:
“And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots” (King James Version).
The image of a tree in this window grows from the heart of a sleeping Jesse. Lineage and hereditary position were of more importance in medieval times, especially to the nobility and clergy perhaps. Establishing and asserting the Royal Line of Jesus would have been of great importance and the two, rather contradictory, genealogies given in the New Testament would have been the subject of both debate and assertion.
The window occupies the entire east wall of the centre of the church. It is huge. The High Altar sits a little way from it these days, making it impossible to get a clear distant view… you would need to be up high. Its colours strew a veil of light behind the altar and the glass of the tracery at the top tells its own story.
These panels show the Doom. The dead are raised from their tombs, their souls led to Judgement where they are weighed on the scales, in a scene once more reminiscent of the Osirian myths of Egypt where the heart of the deceased was weighed against the feather of Truth. The good are guided away by winged angels, the sinners are rather less fortunate and are herded away by demons.
These depictions of the Doom are found in many medieval wall paintings and windows, often monarchs and bishops are shown being herded away to Hell, illustrating the point that it was the purity of the soul rather than worldly success and high office which opened the gates of Heaven. I wonder sometimes if we have forgotten that, in our so-called enlightened age, for the essence of that message applies equally to individuals of all faiths and none when stripped of its stories and particular symbols; it is not what we own or achieve in material terms, but who we choose to be and to become that really counts.