Tuesday, December 27, 2022

Feasts and Remembrances in the Octave of Christmas

Follower of Simon Bening, The Angels Announce
the Birth of Jesus to the Shepherds
From a Book of Hours
Flemish,  c. 1500-1525
The Hague, Meermano Museum
MS RMMW 10 E 3, fol. 85v

Some of the major Church feasts bring with them a week of other celebrations.  This is known as an octave, from the Latin word for the number eight.  In times past many more feasts had octaves attached to them.  Most no longer do, while for most that remain the days of the octave are simply labeled "x day in the Octave of y" (for example, third day in the Octave of Easter).  

Christmas is, however, different.  It retains a daily differentiation for its octave, with each day of the octave having its own, very distinctive character.  Thus, we see:

December 26 - Feast of Saint Stephen, the first martyr.

December 27 - Feast of Saint John the Evangelist:

      - When Knowledge of Iconography Is Lost (click here)
      - Images of John as Evangelist (click here)
      - The Figure With The Chalice (click here)
      - Martyrdom, Miracles and Death of John the Evangelist (click here)
      - Witnesses to the Crucifixion (click here)
      - The Last Supper (click here)

December 28 - Feast of the Holy Innocents (click here)

December 29 - Feast of Saint Thomas Becket (Currently an optional memorial) (click here)

December 30 - Feast of the Holy Family (In years, such as 2022, where there is no Sunday between December 25 and January 1.  If there is a Sunday between those dates, the feast is celebrated on the Sunday instead.) (click here)

December 31 - Feast of Saint Sylvester, Pope (Currently an optional memorial)

While I have not yet produced an essay on the iconography of Saints Stephen or Sylvester, I have produced essays on the other days.  You can access these essays by clicking the links above as indicated.

Have a Merry and Blessed Christmas Octave!

© M. Duffy, 2022

Saturday, December 24, 2022

On the Iconography of Christmas


Luisa Roldan (called La Roldana), Rest on the Flight into Egypt
Spanish, c. 1690
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Advent/Christmas Season has figured heavily in the history of Western Christian art from the early fourth century onward.  There is a tremendous amount of material available and over the years of this blog I have written a great deal about the iconography attached to the various days and weeks.  To make the material more accessible to readers I have gathered below most of these essays into a series of useful links for connecting to what I have already written on the various subjects (much as I have done for Holy Week and the Easter season).  

Although the specific readings these images reflect do not form part of the liturgy in every year, each year does touch on most of them.  

Please note that occasionally one or more of the essays mentioned may be unavailable at times.  This is because I am attempting to keep the essays updated with new images or images that have become available in more detailed versions, thanks to improving technology and expanded access to images.

So, here goes...

Last Week of Advent/Preparation for Christmas

The O Antiphons.  These are a series of antiphons (short verses that precede and follow the prayer of the Magnificat at Evening Prayer (Vespers) during the last week of Advent.  They offer meditations on the significance of the Child born on Christmas Day.

The O Antiphons (introduction)  click here

  • O Wisdom, O Holy Word of God!  click here
  • O Flower of Jesse's Stem!  click here 
  • O Key of David! Come, break down the walls of death!  click here   
  • O Radiant Dawn! O Sun of Justice!  click here  
  • O King of All the Nations!  click here  
  • O Emmanuel! Savior of all people, come and set us free! click here

Nativity (central group of figures) from the Metropolitan Museum Christmas Tree
Italian (Naples), Late 18th Century
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Annunciation

The apparition of the Archangel Gabriel to the young woman of Nazareth named Mary is the event that begins the events of the life of Jesus Christ.  Therefore, the Gospel readings for Mass on the last Sunday and last week of Advent, focus on it.  It has also been a principal topic for artists for many centuries, and is quite frequent on Christmas cards as well.  I have written extensively on the iconography of the Annunciation and my work can easily be accessed through the guide that I put together earlier this year.

  • Links to the Iconography of the Annunciation  click here

The Consolation of Saint Joseph 

An angel reveals to Joseph that Mary's pregnancy comes from God, not from a man.  Joseph acts on his dream and marries Mary, becoming the guardian of the Son of God.

Circle of Antoine Le Moiturier, Nativity
French, c. 1450
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Birth of Jesus

The Nativity

Mary and Joseph are unable to find lodging in a crowded Bethlehem and find shelter in a stable (or cave) where Mary gives birth and places her child in the manger where the animals usually feed.  Angels announce the good news of his birth to the shepherds in the fields, who come and adore him. 

The Holy Family

Images of the three members of the Holy Family. 

  • Jesus, Mary and Joseph! – The Holy Family  click here  

Altarpiece with Scenes of the Infancy of Christ
Northern French, Late 15th Century
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Aftermath

The Visit of the Wise Men

Wise men, led by a star, come from the East to visit the newborn child and offer him rich gifts.

  • How the Image of the Wise Men Was Formed  click here

The Holy Innocents

King Herod the Great knows about the prophecy of a new king in Israel.  After hearing the story of the wise men he decides to ensure his throne by eliminating this new born king.  So, he orders the massacre of all infant boys under 2 years old.  

  • The Holy Innocents – Nearly Forgotten Baby Martyrs  click here

The Flight into Egypt  

An angel warns Joseph about Herod's plans and orders him to take the child and his mother to Egypt to wait for Herod's death.  The Holy Family flees.

  • The Flight into Egypt -- The Holy Refugees, The "Simple" Images (Part I of a Series)  click here
  • The Flight Into Egypt -- The Variations (Part 2 of a Series)  click here
  • The Rest on the Flight into Egypt, Part I of 3  click here  
  • The Rest on the Flight into Egypt, Part II of 3  click here  
  • The Rest on the Flight into Egypt, Part III of 3  click here

Related Feasts  

The beginning of the new year brings with it two feasts that are reflections on the Christmas story rather than narrative depictions of the Gospels.  These are the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, on January 1 and the feast of the Holy Name of Jesus on January 3.

I wish you all a Blessed Christmas and a Healthy New Year!

Christmas Tree with 18th Century Presepio
Italian, 18th Century (tree modern)
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

For those of you who live in the New York area or who may be visiting, the glorious Christmas Tree with its 18th Century Italian Presepio figures (sometimes known as the Angel Tree) is again on view.  This year it can be visited until January 8, 2023.  As always, it is well worth the visit.  

© M. Duffy, 2021, 2022.

Tuesday, December 20, 2022

The Visitation

Jean Bourdichon, The Visitation
From the Grandes Herures d'Anne de Bretagne
French (Tours), c. 1503-1508
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 9474, fol. 36v

“During those days Mary set out and traveled to the hill country in haste to a town of Judah, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.

When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the infant leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth, filled with the holy Spirit, cried out in a loud voice and said,

“Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.  And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?  For at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy.

Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the 

Lord would be fulfilled.”

(Luke 1:39-45) Gospel for the Wednesday of the Fourth Week of vent, Weekday Cycle 1


Mary's journey to the home of her cousin, Elizabeth, figures largely in the story of the birth of Jesus.  It is sparked by Gabriel's response to Mary’s very sensible objection of her own virginity to his message about becoming a mother. 

“Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?”

And the angel said to her in reply, “The holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore, the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God.

And behold, Elizabeth, your relative, has also conceived a son in her old age, and this is the sixth month for her who was called barren;

for nothing will be impossible for God.”  (Luke 1:34-37)

It is, apparently, in response to this miracle that Mary accepts what the angel has told her and says the fateful words: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.”  (Luke 1:38)  It is at this point, with her acceptance, that is the moment of the Incarnation.

Mary’s first thought is about Elizabeth.  We may assume that, in addition to some concern about a late-life pregnancy for her cousin, Mary is also a bit desirous of proof of the things the angel had said to her.  Could it have been real?  Was it something she imagined?  Seeing Elizabeth, seeing her pregnant, could have been a key in her understanding of what had just happened to her.  For, if Elizabeth was in her sixth month, perhaps she really was carrying the Son of God herself. 

Consequently, Elizabeth’s reaction to Mary’s arrival held great importance for her.  Elizabeth’s joy and her words of ecstatic welcome suggested that Mary had not been having a dream, that the angel’s arrival and startling message were real, not a figment of her imagination.  It is, therefore, a very important moment in the story of Mary’s acceptance of her astonishing new role in life.  And it prompted from her the wonderful, exuberant canticle known as the Magnificat, recited daily during the Liturgy of the Hours at the Office of Vespers. 

And Mary said:
“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord;
my spirit rejoices in God my savior.
For he has looked upon his handmaid’s lowliness;
behold, from now on will all ages call me blessed.
The Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is from age to age
to those who fear him.
He has shown might with his arm,
dispersed the arrogant of mind and heart.
He has thrown down the rulers from their thrones
but lifted up the lowly.
The hungry he has filled with good things;
the rich he has sent away empty.
He has helped Israel his servant,
remembering his mercy,
according to his promise to our fathers,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” (Luke 1:46-55)

The event of the Visitation was adopted as the second of the Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary and, as such, has been meditated on by Catholics for centuries.

Artists have depicted the meeting many times in different ways.  There are several iconographic traditions about which I have written extensively.  For convenience, I have summarized them below, with links to the relevant articles.

The Visitation

·       The Joyful Mysteries, The Second Joyful Mystery, The Visitation Part I – The Simple Greeting (click here)

·       The Joyful Mysteries, The Second Joyful Mystery, The Visitation Part II – The Kneeling Elizabeth (click here)

·       The Joyful Mysteries, The Second Joyful Mystery, The Visitation Part III – Acts of Blessing (click here)

·       The Joyful Mysteries, The Second Joyful Mystery, The Visitation Part IV – Visible Babies (click here)

·       The Joyful Mysteries, The Second Joyful Mystery, The Visitation Part V – The Magnificat (click here)

© M. Duffy, 2022

Scripture texts in this work are taken from the New American Bible, revised edition © 2010, 1991, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Washington, D.C. and are used by permission of the copyright owner. All Rights Reserved. No part of the New American Bible may be reproduced in any form without permission in writing from the copyright owner.


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