At the west end of the Herbert Chapel of St Mary’s Priory Church, Abergavenny is a massive figure carved out of a single piece of oak. It is ten feet long and has a large beard and dishevelled hair. At the bottom of the beard, where the curls part, is a small cavity, which may have once contained an ornamental relic.

Dating from the fifteenth century, this carved figure was at one time believed to represent St Christopher, carrying, according to legend, the child Jesus across a river. However, it was later realised that it is in fact the remains of a Jesse tree and the only wooden one in the UIk and possibly in the world.

It depicts Jesse asleep reclining on his left side; his head is covered with a cap and he reposes on a cushion supported by an angel. From the left side of his body grows the stem of a tree which is held or supported by the left hand of the figure, just above the tree which has been sawn off. It is hard to imagine what an amazing sight it must have been when represented as a complete tree, spreading upwards for about 25 feet from the shoot below Jesse’s breast.

It is a representation of the genealogy of Christ, from David, formed by a tree growing out of the body of Jesse, the father of David, who was the youngest of his eight sons. Originally the tree would have been complete with branches where statuettes would have been positioned among the foliage to represent the various persons from whom he was descended. The highest statue of all would have been a representation of the Saviour.

The tradition of the Jesse tree stems from the Book of Isiah: ‘A shoot shall come out of the stump of Jesse and a branch shall grow out of his roots.’ Isiah is predicting the coming of Jesus, saying that one day, a great ruler will rise up from the descendants of the great King David.

Because Jesus Christ belonged to one of the family branches descended from king David, it became customary for medieval artists to depict Jesus’ genealogy as beginning with Jesse. The Abergavenny Jesse figure was carved from an oak trunk in the late 15th century, in the time of Henry VII, probably in 1487. Two years after the Battle of Bosworth and soon after his uncle Jasper Tudor was made Lord of Abergavenny. He was a benefactor of St Marys and died in 1495.

When Churchyard came here in 1587, it may have been lying under the window of the Lewis Chape; but was later moved into the nave. He described it as ‘a most famous worke in manner of a genealogy of kings, called the Roote of Jesse, which work is defaced and pulled down in pieces.’ It is such a remarkable relic that it has been valued at £8m and at one time it would have been embellished with colourful paint and gilding.

Jesse Trees were occasionally made to form the Reredos of an Altar and this one may have been part of the Screen between the Choir and the Lady Chapel which used to occupy the present Chancel. When complete, it must have looked magnificent and what remains is a fine example of 15th century carving or perhaps even earlier. The figure was probably pulled down at the time of the Reformation and the bulk of it used for firewood. The culprits were probably Colonel Fairfax and his Roundheads who tore down and burned most of the furnishings and antique woodwork in this church.

These Jesse figures are usually represented in church windows, but they were occasionally made to form the reredos of an altar and this one is particularly special for it is possibly the only Jesse figure carved in wood in the world. Other remnants of Jesse Trees can be seen in St Cuthbert’s Church, Wells, and at Christchurch in Hampshire, but the Abergavenny one is by far the finest.

On my travels I have seen a very fine Jesse window in St Mary’s, Shrewsbury, where the great East window is filled with 14th century glass. The three panels contain one of the largest representations of the Tree of Jesse. Another remarkable example of a Jesse Window that I have seen and photographed is at St Dyfnog’s Church at Llanrhaeadr-yn-cinmarch, near Ruthin in North Wales. A detail that makes it particularly special is the fact that it bears the date – 1533. At the top of the central light can be seen Jesus Christ as a child in the arms of His mother Mary and they are both rayed with gold to give them glory.

Another place where I have seen a Jesse window is in the chapel of the college at Winchester, but it is of modern glass copied from the old. Also, there is a well known example in the east window of Dorchester Church, Oxfordshire. Some of the figures have been sculpted and form part of the mullions, others being painted on glass.

In 1642, during the Civil War, this window was taken down and hidden from the Puritan troopers, in a massive chest , which was then buried in the churchyard. At the Restoration of the Monarchy, both the window and the chest were returned to the church and in 1661 the window was re-erected at a cost of £60. During the Second World War it was boarded up and sandbagged as a precaution against bomb blast.

St Mary’s Priory Church, since July 7, 2016, also has a Jesse Window which was installed in memory of the Very Reverend Jeremy Winston, who served as Vicar of Abergavenny for 18 years, until he was installed as Dean of the Diocese of Monmouth at Newport Cathedral. Sadly, he died two months later at the age of 57.

The window was dedicated by the Bishop of Monmouth, in the presence of HRH The Prince of Wales, who for sixteen years had given support to an important transformation project at St Mary’s which is often referred to as ‘The Westminster of Wales’, because of its remarkable collection of monuments, tombs and mural tablets.

Designed by the award winning artist Helen Whittaker MA AMGP, the Jesse Window is the fulfilment of Jeremy Winston’s intention that such a window would one day be created. It is a very complex and beautiful design that needs more space than I have in this article to give it justice. However, its creator outlines her intentions as follows:

‘The starting point of the design and composition of this window is the centrality of Christ as God and as man. These dual aspects of Christ are explored through images and relationships connected with five principal themes: Christ, Kingship, Prophecy, the Church and the Sacrement. The iconography, a Jesse tree, is inspired by the survival of the splendid late-medieval wooden sculpture of Jesse at St Mary’s.’

‘The interconnectedness of all the elements within the design draws the viewer in to explore, ‘read’ and understand the characters, their relationships and their stories. The underlying geometry expands across the window and beyond, reaching out to the congregation of St Mary’s and to the wider community in its care.’

To stand in front of the massive carved figure of Jesse and look up in wonder at this complex, but beautiful glass creation that contains such a wealth of stories and symbolic beliefs is a very moving experience that is yet another ingredient in the ‘Magic of Monmouthshire’ that makes our county so special.