The Tree of Jesse
Introduction & Links
“And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots…”
A new category for this site, at present represented by only one painting, but there are a few more to come. The subject provides an important link between the Jewish scriptures or Old Testament, and the Christian story in the New Testament, and it has its thematic origins in a conflation of the prophecy in Isaiah 11:1 and the genealogy of Christ at the beginning of Matthew’s gospel. Its purpose is to demonstrate the patrilinear (via Joseph) descent of Jesus from the royal house of David, son of Jesse. The longer genealogy in Luke 3:23-38 may have been used in the Middle Ages to explain why Mary usually features in Trees of Jesse, but the similarity in Isaiah’s prophecy between virga, a rod, and virgo was probably all that was needed.¹
The theme begins to emerge in Western art in the eleventh century, and is found particularly on the ranks of sculpted figures on the façades of French cathedrals – Notre Dame in Paris had all 28 generations in Matthew sculpted on its west front. In stained glass, ‘Jesse windows’, picturing in stained glass the generations from Jesse at the bottom to Jesus at the top, were common in France, and there are glass panels from Trees of Jesse in the cathedrals of both Canterbury and York.
Stained glass and wall paintings alike are obliged because of restricted space to show the historical generations in abbreviated form, as is the case at Chalgrove (link below) but there are often various subsidiary figures, usually taken to be, or identified as, Old Testament prophets such as Isaiah himself and Jeremiah, given places of honour beside the Davidic kings.
¹ The assertion that the genealogy in Luke is actually intended as that of Mary is, I think, entirely rejected by modern theologians, but these are deep theological waters into which I prefer not to venture. In any case, the medieval mind would not have excluded Mary from this subject, especially given the etymological connection mentioned above.