The Tree of Jesse is a depiction in art of the ancestors of Jesus Christ, shown in a branching tree which rises from Jesse of Bethlehem, the father of King David. It is the original use of the family tree as a schematic representation of a genealogy.
The Tree of Jesse originates in a passage in the biblical Book of Isaiah which describes metaphorically the descent of the Messiah and is accepted by Christians as referring to Jesus. The various figures depicted in the lineage of Jesus are drawn from those names listed in the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke.
The subject is often seen in Christian art, particularly in that of the medieval period. The earliest example is an illuminated manuscript which dates from the 11th century. There are many examples in medieval psalters, because of the relation to King David, son of Jesse, and writer of the Psalms. Other examples include stained glass windows, stone carvings around the portals of medieval cathedrals, and painting on walls and ceilings. The Tree of Jesse also appears in smaller art forms such as embroideries and ivories.
Depictions of the Jesse Tree are based on a passage from the Book of Isaiah.
“And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots” (King James Version).
From the Latin Vulgate Bible used in the Middle Ages:
et egredietur virga de radice Iesse et flos de radice eius ascendet (Isaiah 11:1).
Flos, pl flores 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 “stem of Jesse”.
In the New Testament the lineage of Jesus is traced by two of the Gospel writers, Matthew in descending order, and Luke in ascending order. Luke’s Gospel’s description in chapter 3 begins with Jesus himself and is traced all the way back, via Nathan to David and then on to “Adam, which was [the son] of God.”. (Luke 3:23–38) Matthew’s Gospel opens with the words: “The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” (Matthew 1:1) With this beginning, Matthew shows the Abrahamic and royal descent, passing through David, but then through Solomon.
See Genealogy of Jesus for more explanation of the differences, but both lineages permit the interpretation that Jesus is the “stem of Jesse” by his descent from Jesse’s son, 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.
Modes of depiction
A typical Jesse Tree of the Late Medieval period, detail of the Spinola Hours of Ludwig by the Master of James IV of Scotland, (1510-20)The lower half of this page from the Vyšehrad Codex shows the earliest known depiction of a Tree of JesseThe Jesse Tree in the Lambeth Psalter, unknown English miniaturist, (1140s). Many characteristics of later representations are fully developed.
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. Generally only a few of the most well known individuals, like Kings David and Solomon, are represented on Jesse Trees, rather than an attempt to display the entire lineage.
The first representations of the passage in Isaiah, from about 1000 AD in the West, show a “shoot” in the form of a straight stem or a flowering branch held in the hand most often by the Virgin, or by Jesus when held by Mary, by the prophet Isaiah or by an ancestor figure. The shoot as an attribute acted as a reminder of the prophecy, see also the tradition, apparently older, of the Golden Rose given by the Pope. 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 typical form of the image
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. See for example, Sermon 24 of St Leo the Great: “In which rod, no doubt the blessed Virgin Mary is predicted, who sprung from the stock of Jesse and David and fecundated by the Holy Ghost, brought forth a new flower of human flesh, becoming a virgin-mother”. 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.