Sunday, December 4, 2022

O Flower of Jesse's Stem!

Please note that this essay is undergoing revision at this time (December 2022). As a result, its structure and some content may be subject to change.

Tree of Jesse
Cutting from an Antiphonary
German, c. 1115-1125
Cleveland, Museum of Art
Jesse sits at the bottom of this image, with two branches 
emerging from his chest. These branches coil around to 
envelope some of his descendants.  However, straight 
above his head is his most important lineage, that of David.
Directly above him is David himself, then above him is the
Virgin Mary. Above Mary is Jesus, in whom the branches 
of Jesse's lineage converge and flower.

The third of the "O Antiphons", for December 19th reads:  
"O Flower of Jesse’s stem, you have been raised up as a sign for all peoples; kings stand silent in your presence; the nations bow down in worship before you. Come, let nothing keep you from coming to our aid."  
This title "Flower of Jesse's stem" derives from the lineage of Jesus.  He is a descendant of Jesse, father of King David, and the presumed subject of the prophecy of Isaiah (read on the Second Sunday of Advent in Year A), which reads:

"But a shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse,
and from his roots a bud shall blossom.
The spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him:
a spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
A spirit of counsel and of strength,
a spirit of knowledge and of fear of the LORD,
and his delight shall be the fear of the LORD.
Not by appearance shall he judge,
nor by hearsay shall he decide,
But he shall judge the poor with justice,
and decide fairly for the land’s afflicted.
He shall strike the ruthless with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall slay the wicked.
Justice shall be the band around his waist,
and faithfulness a belt upon his hips.
Then the wolf shall be a guest of the lamb,
and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat;
The calf and the young lion shall browse together,
with a little child to guide them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
together their young shall lie down;
the lion shall eat hay like the ox.
The baby shall play by the viper’s den,
and the child lay his hand on the adder’s lair.
They shall not harm or destroy on all my holy mountain;
for the earth shall be filled with knowledge of the LORD,
as water covers the sea.

On that day,
The root of Jesse,
set up as a signal for the peoples—
Him the nations will seek out;
his dwelling shall be glorious.
(Isaiah 11:1-10)
This image, of Jesse as the root and Jesus as the flower (sometimes also translated as rod), resulted in one of the best known of medieval images, the Tree of Jesse.  This is not to be confused with the modern "Jesse tree" which is a sometimes charming Advent decoration, a kind of Advent calendar, especially in use in homes with children.  Instead, this is a serious didactic image, making visual the human ancestry of Jesus.

Although I have found images of the Tree of Jesse in twentieth-century church decorations, the majority of these images were done between the twelfth and the seventeenth centuries.  

Anton Mormann, Madonna and Child in a Jesse Tree Mandorla
German, 1928
Ölde, Catholic Parish Church of Saint John the Baptist

In most of the Jesse Tree images, we see Jesse, asleep, either lying down or sitting up.  Out of his body (generally, but not always from his mid-section, the location of his "loins") grows a tree or a vine, which branches as it grows.  The branches are occupied by his descendents, often shown in chronological order.  Most of the images choose to illustrate only a few of the descendents, although David is usually prominent.  Very rarely all the generations named in the beginning of Matthew's Gospel are shown.

Medieval Stained Glass

Among the best known of the medieval Jesse trees are two famous stained glass windows, dated to the middle decades of the 12th century, at the abbey of St. Denis outside Paris and at Chartres cathedral in Ile-de-France.  These two immensely important churches were the hatching grounds for the Gothic style in architecture and embellishment that would dominate most of Europe for the following 300 years.  Their influence was widespread. 
Jesse Tree, Stained Glass
French, c. 1140-1144
St. Denis, Abbey of St. Denis

Jesse Tree, Stained Glass
French, c. 1150-1170
Chartres, Cathedral

Tree of Jesse Window
English, c. 1170-1180
Canterbury, Cathedral

Tree of Jesse Window
English, c. 1200
Canterbury, Cathedral

Jesse Tree, Stained Glass
German (Swabian), c. 1280-1300
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Therefore, it is not surprising that the image of the tree of Jesse would appear in other forms of art during the remainder of the Gothic period.  It appears in particular in manuscripts painted all over Europe during these centuries.

Manuscript Illumination

Tree of Jesse
From the Siegburg Lectionary
German, c. 1125-1150
London, British Library
MS Harley 2889, fol. 4r

Tree of Jesse
From the Lambeth Bible
English, c. 1140-1150
London, Lambeth Palace

Tree of Jesse
Single Leaf from a Psalter
English (Canterbury), c. 1155-1160
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 724, fol. 1v

Master of Simon de Saint Albans and Workshop, Tree of Jesse
From a Bible
French (Champagne), c. 1170-1180
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 16746, fol. 7v

Tree of Jesse
From a Gospel Book
French (Champagne), c. 1185-1195
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 11534, fol. 207v

Tree of Jesse
From a Bible
French (Troyes), c. 1190-1200
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 8823, fol. 9v

Often the image of the branching vine or tree makes ingenious use of the shape of the page and takes advantage of the letter L, which is the initial letter of the opening of the Gospel of Matthew in the Latin Vulgate, "Liber generationis".  Jesse is shown lying in sleep as the horizontal bar of the letter, while his descendents occupy the vertical bar.

At other times it spreads out and occupies the entire space of the page, often with many branches.  

Master of the Ingeborg Psalter, Tree of Jesse
From the Ingeborg Psalter
French, c. 1195
Chantilly, Musée Condé
MS 94695, fol. 14v

Master of Blanche of Castille, Jesse Tree
From the Psalter of St. Louis and Blance of Castille
French (Paris), ca. 1225
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Arsenal 1186, fol. 15v

Jesse Tree
From the Windmill Psalter
English (London), c. 1280-1299
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 102, fol.1v

Queen Mary Master, Tree of Jesse
From the Queen Mary Psalter
English (London), c. 1310-1320
London, British Library
MS Royal 2 B VII, fol. 67v

Jesse Tree
From a Book of Hours
French (Rouen). c. 1475-1500
The Hague, Koninklijk Bibliotheek
MS 133 D 17, fol. 24r

and south to Spain, where the lower section of the central pillar of the famed Portico de la Gloria at the great shrine of Santiago de Compostela is decorated with a Jesse tree:
Santiago de Compostela, Portico de la Gloria
Spanish, 12th century
Santiago de Compostela, Cathedral

and to Italy, where the influence of the still existing classical style, plus the ethereal style of the nearby Byzantine Empire, resulted in such beautiful works as the Bible of Pope Clement VII.

Bible of Clement VII
Italian (Bologna), ca. 1267
Paris, Bibliotheque Nationale de France
MS Latin 22, fol. 346

Bible of Clement VII, Jesse Tree
detail view

Northern French, 1229
New York, Morgan Library
MS M 163, fol. 326r

Nearly all the images include Mary independently, in the level just below that of Jesus or she is shown holding the Infant Jesus. However, there are some variations.

Images from the 14th century on begin to focus on Mary herself.  She is shown at the center of the composition as the true, direct offshoot of Jesse himself.

Jesse Tree
From Bible historiale of Gerard des Moulins
French (St. Omer), c 14th Cemtury
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 152, fol. 467v

Jesse Tree
From the Heures de Louis de Savoie
France (Savoy), c. 1445-1460
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 9473, fol. 102

Master of Cornelis Croesinck, Jesse Tree
Croesinck Hours
Dutch, 1489-1499
New York, Morgan Library
MS M 1078, fol. 112v

Jesse Tree
From a Psalter
Flemish (Bruges), c. 1500
Paris, Irish Cultural Center
MS E.1, fol . 42 

Jesse Tree
From a Psalter
German (Augsburg), c. 1230-1255
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 280, fol. 2r
This image is unusual in that, instead of ancestors of Christ sitting on the boughs of the Tree, it is incidents from the New Testament depicting the Annunciation, Nativity, Presentation and Baptism of Jesus that appear.

In the years bracketing 1500, at the very end of the Middle Ages are images that directly link the Tree of Jesse with the Annunciation, as for example, this image attributed to the Master of the Older Prayer Book of Maximilian I.

Master of the Old Prayer Book of Maximilian I
From the Breviary of Eleanor of Portugal
Flemish, 1495-1515
New York, Morgan Library
MS M 52, fol. 388v
Finally, one image combines many themes.  In similar fashion to the Breviary of Eleanor of Portugal, it combines the image of the Annunciation with the Tree of Jesse.  But, it also includes an image of Adam and Eve, also ancestors of Jesus, as they are of all humans, just above the figures of Gabriel and Mary.  Not only are they part of the ancestry of Jesus, they are also the means through which sin and death entered the world.  It is their Fall that was healed by Christ, beginning at the Annunciation. 

Hours of the Virgin
French (Rouen), 1495-1505
New York, Morgan Library
MS M 174, fol. 21r
© M. Duffy, 2011

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