Tree of Jesse

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A common iconographic subject in medieval and early Renaissance art, representing the royal genealogy of Christ from Jesse, father of David (Mt 1.117). The image of the tree was taken from Isaiah 11.1, "But a shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse, and from his roots a bud shall blossom." As early as Tertullian the Fathers interpreted the shoot (virga ) as the Blessed Virgin (virgo ), the blossom as Christ her Son. In the 11th century the subject makes its appearance in German miniature painting, after which it appears throughout Europe in manuscripts, stained glass, and sculpture. An Advent theme presented with wide variations, it generally represents the Prophet Jesse reclining on the ground with a tree rising from his side. The tree might carry any number of figures from the genealogy of Christ. Earlier representations show Christ at the summit in majesty; but from the beginning of the 13th century, with the rise of the Marian cult, Mary becomes the blossom holding the Christ Child in her arms. Often the Virgin is enthroned, and sometimes she is surrounded with the seven gifts of the Holy Ghost mentioned in the same prophecy (Is 11.2). Iconologically the theme is a testimony of the true humanity of Christ. But it is also a testimony to the royalty of Christ, hence its popularity at Saint-Denis and chartres.

See Also: mary, blessed virgin, iconography of.

Bibliography: a. watson, The Early Iconography of the Tree of Jesse (London 1934). l. rÉau, Iconographie de l'art chrétien, 3 v. in 6 (Paris 195559) 2:129140.

[j. r. johnson]