Tree of Jesse

This is an ink drawing on a 12″ × 16″ piece of paper. I drew it using calligraphers’ inks applied with brushes and metal-tipped dip pens, and gold and palladium leaf.

The original was created on private commission.

The Tree of Jesse is a visual elaboration of a prophecy of Isaiah: And there shall come forth a rod out of the root of Jesse, and a flower shall rise up out of his root, applied to the genealogy of Jesus Christ.

Its major figures are (from the top of the image) Jesus Christ, the Blessed Virgin Mary and David, all sitting on branches of the tree; and the sleeping Jesse, from whose body its trunk emerges. Seven doves representing the Seven Gifts of the Holy Ghost surround Christ, in reference to Isaiah’s following words: And the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him: the spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the spirit of counsel and of fortitude, the spirit of knowledge and of godliness. And he shall be filled with the spirit of the fear of the Lord.

The genealogy of Jesus Christ, as given in the Gospel according to St. Matthew, lists forty men from Abraham to St. Joseph, divided into three groups of fourteen (evenly, if David is included in both the first and second divisions and Josiah in both the second and third).

Between the major figures in the central column I placed small scenes in quatrefoils that indicate the start, division and end of the list. Abraham and Isaac are the first names, so I drew the Sacrifice of Isaac, which the Fathers of the Church identified as a prefigurement of the Crucifixion of Christ. The starry sky in the scene refers to God’s promise to Abraham: Because thou hast done this thing, and hast not spared thy only-begotten son for my sake, I will bless thee, and I will multiply thy seed as the stars of heaven.

The Transmigration into Babylon (which is the event separating the second and third divisions) appears in the quatrefoil above David. Specifically, I illustrated Zedekiah, King of Judah, blinded and chained. This seemed to me the best representation of the royal lineage taken into exile in Babylon (even though Zedekiah’s name is skipped in St. Matthew’s list).

Because the list ends with St. Joseph, I drew his espousal to the Blessed Virgin Mary as a way to connect the genealogy more securely to Mary and Christ. The scene follows traditional accounts of the event, with Joseph holding a flowering staff (that here resembles the flowering Tree of Jesse). One of the doves representing the Seven Gifts I drew in flight, above the quatrefoil to suggest also the dove that landed on Joseph’s staff to signify his election by God to be Mary’s spouse.

Fitting all of the ancestors into one composition was a challenge. Late medieval paintings that have them perched haphazardly on the branches of the tree always seemed somewhat comical to me, whereas more orderly depictions from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries reduced the tree to a stylized, almost geometric pattern. I wanted the tree instead to resemble a living thing.

My solution was to create a framework of Gothic tracery in which the figures could stand in an orderly manner, and then to weave the branches of the tree through it, like a plant climbing a trellis.

The tree is an Almond tree, chosen for its connection to the flowering rod of Aaron (a prefigurement of the virginal conception and birth of Jesus Christ) and for symbolism that I found in the poetry of Adam of St. Victor (here translated by Digby S. Wrangham):

In the flower, leaf, nut, and shower
Mystic emblems of the power
Of the Saviour’s love are met.
Leaf Christ is, by shelter spreading;
Flower, by sweetness; nut, by feeding;
Dew, by grace with heaven’s dew wet.

On the nut still let us ponder;
For, if a full light brought under,
’Tis the mystic type of light.
As it three in one appeareth,
So three gifts too it conferreth;
Unction, food, effulgence bright.

Christ the nut, its hull His passion,
Closing round his human fashion,
And His bony frame its shell,
The incarnate Deity
And Christ’s tender sympathy
In the kernel mark ye well.

To indicate the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy over time, the Tree emerges barren. It passes through the body of David in reference to Nathan’s prophecy: And when thy days shall be fulfilled, and thou shalt sleep with thy fathers, I will raise up thy seed after thee, which shall proceed out of thy bowels, and I will establish his kingdom.

As the tree reaches Mary, it begins to sprout leaves and flowers; when it reaches Christ, almonds appear.

The same progression is indicated by the colors surrounding the figures in the central column; at the bottom the sky is dark; then a medium blue; then (at Mary) the light blue of a daytime sky; then (at Christ) gold, like the light of the sun itself.

 

Since the Tree of Jesse first became popular in Christian iconography in the twelfth century, it has been common for artists to depict prophets surrounding the patriarchs. The selection varies, but many Trees of Jesse include twelve prophets mentioned in a sermon attributed to St. Augustine that inspired a popular liturgical drama (performed at Matins on Christmas eve). These are the prophets I have depicted; their prophecies I wrote in a tall blackletter script.

They are Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel, Moses, David, Habakuk, Simeon, Elizabeth, John the Baptist, and then – because the sermon addresses pagans as well as Jews – three Gentile prophets: Virgil (whose fourth Eclogue is quoted), Nebuchadnezzar (who saw the Son of God in the furnace), and the Eritrean Sibyl.

The Church Fathers associated the New Testament with the clear light of the sun, and the Old Testament with the uncertain light of the moon and stars. Christ, as the Sun of Justice, here is surrounded by gold and holds the earth in His hand.

The Virgin Mary’s special place between the two testaments is indicated by her having a golden (solar) halo, and the moon beneath her feet; this refers also to the Woman of the Apocalypse, traditionally identified as Mary.

To the men and women of the Old Testament (any who died before the Resurrection and thus descended to Limbo), I gave silver (lunar) haloes; these are crescents except for those who encountered Christ (the sun) face to face; Joseph, Simeon, Elizabeth and John the Baptist have full-moon haloes, as does Moses, who was present at the Transfiguration. The Jewish patriarchs, righteous kings and prophets have crescent haloes to the right (like a waxing moon) whereas the Gentile prophets have theirs to the left; I consider the revelation to the Gentiles in the time of the Old Testament to be analogous to the far side of the Moon; presumably there, but hidden from our sight.

The wicked kings of Judah I drew with candles in their hands, referring to God’s preservation of the royal line of Judah, that there may remain a lamp for my servant David before me always in Jerusalem. To King Solomon,I have given the benefit of doubt; a tradition of venerating him among the righteous patriarchs (in the Byzantine liturgy especially) made me think that his final repentance may be presumed. Nebuchadnezzar appears as a villainous in the Holy Scriptures (including the transmigration depicted here), but the Book of Daniel tells that after his bout of ferality, he became a worshipper of the one true God. Thus I placed a crescent moon halo behind his head in both places that he appears.

 

Prints of this drawing are available here: http://www.danielmitsui.com/00_pages/tree_of_jesse.html

1 comment for “Tree of Jesse

  1. December 5, 2017 at 11:34 pm

    Just breathtaking. How long did this piece take? I think you’ve mentioned in the past that you don’t do much by way of preliminary sketching… is that the case for this as well? The complexity is amazing.

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