The Jesse Tree - Theology through Art
Fr. Scott A. Haynes
Throughout Advent, as we are preparing for the coming of our Messiah, we have heard references to Christ's Davidic ancestry in the readings at Holy Mass and Divine Office. In the artistic patrimony of the Church the tradition has developed of depicting the royal genealogy of Jesus Christ – it is called the “Jesse Tree.”
This Jesse tree is a visual representation of Christ’s genealogy that dates back to Jesse, the father of King David. God promised David that his Kingdom would last forever - and that through him and his seed God would save his people and bless the world. Isaiah also speaks in many other places of the promised King in the line of David - the one whose coming we await during the Season of Advent and whose birth we celebrate at Christmas. And so do the other prophets.
Indeed from the story of Adam and Eve to the call of Abraham to leave his home and country and go to a land God would show him, and from the promises made to Moses in the desert of Sinai to the building of the First Temple in Jerusalem by King Solomon, God has promised to be with and to dwell with His people and to bring a new world into being where the wolf will live with the lamb and the leopard lie down with the goat - a world where the power of Satan will be crushed under the heel of a Virgin Mother - a world in which justice and righteousness will shine and evil will be no more.
The artistic motif of the Jesse tree dates back at least to the 11th century. The first notable example is attributed to Abbot Suger (1081-1151). In 1144, he commissioned a stained-glass window for the Abbey of St. Denis near Paris. Unfortunately, this window was destroyed in the course of time, but a version (25 ft. x 9 ft.) was installed in Chartres Cathedral in 1150 and this survives intact to this day. In this window, a tree grows from a sleeping Jesse. Along the trunk, a number of kings of Judah are shown. Along the branches stand the prophets who preached the coming of the Messiah. But you will find the Jesse tree in illuminated manuscripts and in elaborate wood carvings on altars as well.
The artistic design of the Jesse tree typically shows Jesse lying on his bed with a somewhat pensive look. Jesse wears a typical Jewish hat. From the mid-section of his body, the trunk of the tree gives rise to four branches, meant to look like the shape of a chalice. The Jesse tree resembles a chalice because it symbolizes the Cross of Calvary where Christ poured forth his blood into the chalice of salvation for our salvation.
The four branches of the Jesse tree show in ascending order Abraham, David, Mary and Jesus Christ -- this is the royal line of the Messiah. For this reason, the figures wear crowns. But Old Testament figures also flank them on both sides. We have on the left the following in ascending order: Malachi, Daniel and Isaiah. To the right of Jesse, we have Aaron and Ezekiel. You notice that the prophets depicted are holding scrolls, revealing part of their vision about the coming Messiah.
But Aaron, the high priest, holds the blooming staff, signifying the fruitfulness of priesthood. Ezekiel’s prophecy speaks about the closed door. This closed door refers to Mary's virginity, through which Christ, the Word made Flesh, will proceed. Malachi proclaims the grandeur of God’s name, whereas Daniel, in his visions of the four beasts, celebrates God’s definitive victory over evil. Isaiah announces the rule of Immanuel. The dove next to the Isaiah’s head indicates the presence and inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
Jesus Christ is enthroned at the top of the Jesse tree for he is the long-awaited Messiah-King, ruling over the house of David. He rules as the Pantokrator. Christus Pantokrator – Christ our Teacher – both blesses with his right hand and holds the book of judgment in his left hand. Two worshipping angels surround Christ. This reminds us that our Savior has both a Divine and human nature; He is truly God and truly man. Another look at the Jesse tree reveals seven doves, symbols of the seven gifts of the Spirit, also surrounding the Messiah, reminding us that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father through the Son.
With this vivid image of the Jesse tree, we have much upon which we can meditate this Advent. What lesson might we gain from contemplating the theology represented in the Jesse tree? It is simple. A long line of prophets, priests and kings prepared the way for the Messiah.
But when Christ the Son of God came to earth, he chose to come as a weak babe – as a helpless infant. And when this Holy Babe came, he came through Mary. St. Bernard of Clairvaux puts it this way:
“The Virgin is that royal way, by which the Savior comes to us.”
Therefore, when we want to approach the Lord Jesus, let us approach him as little children, even as babes in the arms of Mother Mary. Let us take the royal way back to him. Let us approach Jesus through Mary.