16 August 2010

The Jesse Tree

The Tree of Jesse refers to a passage in the Biblical Book of Isaiah which describes metaphorically the descent of the Messiah from Jesse of Bethlehem, through his son David. It is accepted by Christians as pertaining to Jesus, and is often represented in art, particularly in that of the Medieval period. The earliest example dates from the 11th century.
Isaiah, 11:1
“ There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.”
In the Latin Vulgate Bible used in the Middle Ages in the West this was: "et egredietur virga de radice Iesse et flos de radice eius ascendet " or ".. a rod out of the root of Jesse, and a flower shall rise up...". Flos, pl floris is Latin for flower. Virga is a "green twig", "rod" or "broom", as well as a convenient near-pun with Virgo or Virgin, which undoubtedly influenced the development of the image. Thus Jesus is the Virga Jesse or "shoot of Jesse". In the New Testament the lineage of Jesus is traced by two of the Gospel writers, Matthew and Luke. Luke describes the "generations of Christ" in Chapter 3 of Luke's Gospel, beginning with Jesus himself and tracing backwards through his "earthly father" Joseph all the way to Adam.

Matthew's Gospel opens with the words:
“The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.”
With this beginning Matthew makes clear Jesus' whole lineage: He is of God's chosen people, by his descent from Abraham, and he is the "shoot of Jesse" by his descent from Jesse's son, King David. Pictorial representations of the Jesse Tree show a symbolic tree or vine with spreading branches to represent the genealogy in accordance with Isaiah's prophecy. The 12th century monk Hervaeus expressed the medieval understanding of the image, based on the Vulgate text: "The patriarch Jesse belonged to the royal family, that is why the root of Jesse signifies the lineage of kings. As to the rod, it symbolises Mary as the flower symbolises Jesus Christ." In the medieval period, when heredity was all-important, much greater emphasis than today was placed on the actual royal descent of Jesus, especially by royalty and the nobility, including those who had joined the clergy. Between them, these groups were responsible for much of the patronage of the arts.

During the Medieval era the symbol of the tree as an expression of lineage was adopted by the nobility and has passed into common usage initially in the form of the Family Tree and later as a mode of expressing any line of descent. The form is widely used as a table in such disciplines as biology. It is also used to show lines of responsibility in personnel structures such as government departments.
The Jesse Tree has been depicted in almost every medium of Christian art. In particular, it is the subject of many stained glass windows and illuminated manuscripts. It is also found in wall paintings, architectural carvings, funerary monuments, floor tiles and embroidery.

The first representations of the passage in Isaiah, from about 1,000 in the West, showed a "shoot" in the form of a straight stem or a flowering branch held in the hand by (most often) the Virgin, Jesus when held by Mary, or Isaiah or ancestor figures. The shoot as an attribute acted as a reminder of the prophecy, In the Byzantine world, the Tree figures only as a normal-looking tree in the background of some Nativity scenes, also a reminder to the viewer. Indeed, the Tree was always far more common in Northern Europe, where it may have originated, than Italy.

There exist also other forms of representation of the Genealogy of Jesus which do not employ the Jesse Tree, the most famous being that painted in the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo.

The most typical form which the Jesse Tree takes is to show the figure of Jesse, often larger than all the rest, reclining or sleeping (perhaps by analogy to Adam when his rib was taken) at the foot of the pictorial space. From his side or his navel springs the trunk of a tree or vine which ascends, branching to either side. On the branches, usually surrounded by formally scrolling tendrils of foliage, are figures representing the ancestors of Christ. The trunk generally ascends vertically to Mary and then Christ at the top.

The number of figures depicted varies greatly, depending on the amount of room available for the design. As a maximum, if the longer ancestry from Luke is used, there are 43 generations between Jesse and Jesus. The identity of the figures also varies, and may not be specified, but Solomon and David are usually included, and often all shown wear crowns. Most Jesse Trees include Mary immediately beneath the figure of Jesus (or, in the Gothic period, show a Virgin and Child), emphasising that she was the means by which the shoot of Jesse was born. Saint Joseph is rarely shown, although unlike Mary he is a link in the Gospel genealogies. It was believed in the Middle Ages that the House of David could only marry within itself, and that she was independently descended from Jesse. Sometimes Jesus and other figures are shown in the cups of flowers, as the fruit or blossom of the Tree.

The Jesse Tree was the only prophecy in the Old Testament to be so literally and frequently illustrated, and so came also to stand for the Prophets, and their foretelling of Christ, in general. Both the St-Denis and Chartres windows include columns of prophets, as do many depictions. Often they carry banderoles with a quotation from their writings, and they may point to Christ, as the foretold Messiah. The inclusion of kings and prophets was also an assertion of the inclusion and relevance in the biblical canon of books that some groups had rejected in the past.

While particularly popular in the Medieval era, there were also many depictions of the Jesse Tree in Gothic Revival art of the 19th century. The 20th century has also produced a number of fine examples.

The earliest known representation of the Jesse Tree can be firmly dated to 1086 and is in the Vyšehrad Codex, the Coronation Gospels of Vratislav II, the first monarch of Bohemia, which was previously a dukedom.

In a paper analysing this image, J.A. Hayes Williams points out that the iconography employed is very different from that usually found in such images, which she argues relates to an assertion of the rightful kingship of the royal patron. The page showing the Jesse Tree is accompanied by a number of other illuminated pages of which four depict the Ancestors of Christ. The Jesse Tree has not been used to support a number of figures, as is usual. Instead, the passage from Isaiah has been depicted in a very literal way. In the picture, the prophet Isaiah approaches Jesse from beneath whose feet is springing a tree, and wraps around him a banner with words upon it which translate literally as:- "A little rod from Jesse gives rise to a splendid flower", following the language of the Vulgate. Instead of the ancestors seen in later depictions, seven doves (with haloes) perch in the branches. These, in a motif from Byzantine art, represent the Seven gifts of the Holy Spirit as described by the Apostle Paul. Williams goes on to compare it with two other famous images, theTree of Jesse window at Chartres Cathedral and the Lambeth Bible in England.

Williams says:-
"While depictions of the Jesse Tree originated in Bohemia, the concept became widely popular throughout Europe and the British Isles. Within sixty years the composition had exploded and expanded, with rearranged original elements and new ones added."
However this claim of Bohemian origin may be somewhat overstated, as there is an "incipent" version in an Anglo-Norman manuscript of similar date to the Vysehrad Codex.

In the first decades of the 12th century, the early Cistercian illuminators of Cîteaux Abbey played an important part in the development of the image of the Tree of Jesse, which was used to counter renewed tendencies to deny the humanity of Mary, which culminated in Catharism. However, as Bernard of Clairvaux, strongly hostile to imagery, increased in influence in the order, their use of imagery ceased. The Lambeth Bible is dated between 1140 and 1150. The Jesse Tree illustration comes at the start of Isaiah and differs greatly from the earlier one, having much more the form that is familiar from both manuscript and stained glass versions. In it, Jesse lies at the border of the page with the tree springing from his side. The branches of the tree are depicted as highly formalised circular tendrils which enclose six pairs or trios of figures. At the centre, tall and highly stylised in the same manner as 12th century columnar statues, stands a full length Blessed Virgin Mary from whose head spring tendrils which enclose a bust of her Son, Jesus. He is encircled by the seven doves, with outspread wings; this became the usual depiction of them. Four Prophets with scrolls occupy medallions in the corners.

Among the famous stained glass windows of Chartres Cathedral in Northern France is the Jesse Tree window, of 1140-50, the far right of three windows above the Royal Portal and beneath the western rose window. It derives from the oldest known (and almost certainly the original) complex form of the Jesse Tree, with the tree rising from a sleeping Jesse, a window placed in the Saint-Denis Basilica by Abbot Suger in about 1140, which is now heavily restored.

The Chartres window comprises eight square central panels, with seven rectangular ones on either side, separated, as is usual in 12th century windows with no stone tracery, by heavy iron armatures. In the lowest central panel reclines the figure of Jesse, with the tree rising from his middle. In each of the seven sections it branches out into a regular pattern of scrolling branches, each bearing a bunch of leaves that take on the heraldic form of the Fleur de Lys, very common in French stained glass. Central to each panel is a figure:- David, Solomon, two more crowned figures, the Blessed Virgin Mary and, surrounded by the doves bearing the Gifts of the Spirit, a majestic figure of Christ, larger than the rest. In each of the narrower panels, edged by richly patterned borders, are the figures of fourteen prophets bearing scrolls.

Apart from the theological importance, the design works very well as a unified composition for a tall vertical space; most other tall windows were divided into separate scenes. Saint-Denis and Chartres provided a model for many other such windows, notably the Jesse Tree windows of Canterbury Cathedral, c.1200, probably also made in France, and St. Kunibert, Cologne of 1220-35. Section references:- Brown, Lee, Seddon and Stephens.

The Tree appears in several other Romanesque Bibles apart from the Lambeth Bible, usually as a large historiated initial at the start of either Isaiah or Matthew. The Saint-Bénigne Bible is perhaps the earliest appearance, with just Jesse and the doves of the Seven Gifts. The Capuchin's Bible (see picture) is a later example, c. 1180, in which a Jesse Tree forms the L of Liber generationis.. at the start of the Gospel of Matthew.

The Tree is also often found in Psalters, especially English manuscripts, illustrating the B initial of Beatus Vir.., the beginning of Psalm 1, which often occupies a whole page. Sometimes this is the only fully illuminated page, and if it is historiated (i.e. contains a pictured scene) the Tree is the usual subject. When not historiated, the initial had for about two hundred years been most often made up of, or filled with, spiraling plant tendrils, often with animals or men caught up in them, so the development to the tree was a relatively easy step. Indeed, although Jesse's son David was believed to be the author of the Psalms, it has been suggested that the tradition of using a Jesse Tree here arose largely because it was an imposing design that worked well filling a large B shape.

An early example is the late 12th century Huntingfield Psalter, and an especially splendid one from the early 14th century is the Gorleston Psalter in the British Library. In these and most other examples Jesse lies at the bottom of the B, and the Virgin is no larger than other figures. In the recently re-discovered Macclesfield Psalter of about 1320 another very elaborate Tree grows beyond the B, sending branches round the sides and bottom of the text. In the Psalter and Hours of John, Duke of Bedford (British Library Ms Add 42131), of about 1420-23, the Tree frames the bottom and both sides of the page, whilst the initial B at the top of the page contains the anointing of King David.

Some continental manuscripts give the scene a whole page with no initial. "Various selections" of the elements appear, and prophets and sometimes even the Cumaean Sybil (Ingeburg Psalter c. 1210) stand in the corners or to the side. A Lectionary of before 1164 from Cologne unusually shows Jesse dead in a tomb or coffin, from which the tree grows. Romanesque depictions usually show Jesse asleep on open ground or on a simple couch - all that can be told from the Bible about his circumstances is that he had sheep, which David herded. By the Gothic period small Trees are found in many types of manuscript, and Jesse is often more comfortably accommodated in a large bed, sometimes a luxurious one, as in the Beauvais window below.

The Christmas tree comes to us from the Gospel from the family tree of Jesus Christ, which is read the Sunday before Christmas in the Orthodox Churches. During Byzantine times as the manuscripts testify, Christmas trees were placed in the churches in state of the ornaments they had the prophets icons. On the bottom of the tree the icon of Prophet Jesse on the top a star and in the middle of it the icon of Christ blessing with His two hands.

Even today, the Ecumenical Patriarch on Christmas wears that sakkos called "O Sakkos Tou Iessae" The mantle of Jesse where is embroidered with gold threads on burgundy velvet material the tree with the Prophets and Jesse at the bottom and Christ on the top.

After the sack of Constantinople and occupation by the Crusaders during XIIIth century all these items found in the churches were transferred to Italy especially to Venice. When the Byzantines took over Constantinople they found the city empty of all its treasures and relics, had more important things to take care of. So the tradition fade out.

In the West though the tradition of Christmas Tree flourished especially during Renaissance. Not only churches decorated Christmas trees but also the town squares shops and houses. The pine tree was chosen, imitating the Cedar of Lebanon, that is a tree that never throws its leaves but stands still during the strong winds of winter, so to be strong during the New Year facing any problems that we are going to face.

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