The Genealogy of Christ, from The Garden of Delights (Hortus Deliciarum) by Herrad of Landsberg by Unknown German artist [Herrad of Landsberg]

Unknown German artist [Herrad of Landsberg]

The Genealogy of Christ, from The Garden of Delights (Hortus Deliciarum) by Herrad of Landsberg, 19th century copy (original c.1170 or c.1175–1195), Illumination, Formerly Strasbourg, destroyed in 1870, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hortus_Deliciarum,_Der_Stammbaum_Christi.JPG

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Abraham and his Seed

Commentary by
Read by Ben Quash

A common visualization of Christ’s genealogy from the medieval period is the ‘Tree of Jesse’, a motif inspired by Isaiah 11:1, ‘a shoot shall come out of the root of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots’. In Christian iconography, the Tree of Jesse is compatible with the genetic ancestry of Christ found in Matthew and Luke. A particularly prevalent method for visualizing the Tree is to represent the descendants blossoming out of Jesse’s sleeping body. In other contexts, however, the genealogical tree is disassociated from Jesse entirely, and is instead oriented around another Old Testament figure.

This is a reconstruction (based on nineteenth-century copies) of a twelfth-century illumination by Herrad of Landsberg (1130–95): the first encyclopaedia we know to have been written by a woman. The original was destroyed by fire in 1870. Here it is Abraham (not Jesse) who stands (rather than lies) at the base of the tree, as if enveloped within the trunk. He faces right, peering towards a cluster of stars; a symbol of God’s promise to him of uncountable descendants in Genesis 15:5.

The tree itself is held by God the Father. It grows into a bulbous trunk filled with heads of Abraham’s descendants and Christ’s ancestors. Above these is the full-frontal head of St Joseph, surmounted by the seated figure of the Virgin Mary, and finally Christ and the dove representing the Holy Spirit. On either side of the central trunk, the looping branches enclose busts of various types of figure in the Old Testament: kings, prophets, patriarchs, and Jewish officials. In the top portion of the illumination on either side of Christ are two groups representing early Christians, fronted by two figures who are assumed to be Paul and Peter. 

Herrad of Landsberg has drawn on this collective body of biblical figures to represent the genealogical tree, which is topped and tailed by the Godhead. The illumination is imbued with belief in the covenant promise—a promise first given to Abraham and then to ‘his seed’, that seed being Jesus Christ (Galatians 3:16). 

 

References

Hayes Williams, Jean. 2000. ‘The Earliest Dated Tree of Jesse Image: Thematically Reconsidered’, Athanor, 18: 17–23

Parker, Sarah Celentano. 2009. ‘A Delightful Inheritance: Female Agency and the Disputatio Tradition in the Hortus deliciarum’, MFF, 45.1: 124–46


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