Tuesday, December 20, 2011

O Flower of Jesse's Stem!

Jesse Tree
Stained Glass
French, 1140-1144
St. Denis, Abbey of St. Denis
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.

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

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.
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. 
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, but also in other forms:

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

Jesse Tree
Book of Hours
French (Rouen). 1475-1500
The Hague, Koninklijk Bibliotheek
MS 133 D 17, fol. 24r
 and nearby England:

Jesse Tree
Windmill Psalter
English (London), 1280-1299
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M102, fol.1v
Master of Queen Mary's Psalter, Jesse Tree
English (Canterbury), 1310-1330
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS G53, fol. 6r
 to the northern territories of the Low Countries and Germany

Jesse Tree
Stained Glass
German (Swabian)
ca. 1280
New York
Metropolitan Museum

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.


Master of Cornelis Croesinck, Jesse Tree
Croesinck Hours
Dutch, 1489-1499
New York, Morgan Library
MS M1078, fol. 112v

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
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.

Northern French, 1229
New York, Morgan Library
MS M163, 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.

For example, the image below, from the 14th century, focuses on Mary herself.  She is shown at the center of the composition, as the Virgin of the Annunciation because just above her ear is the dove symbol for the Holy Spirit.
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

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
Breviary of Eleanor of Portugal
Flemish, 1495-1515
New York, Morgan Library
MS M52, 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 M174, fol. 21r
© M. Duffy, 2011

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