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).
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
1 The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.
2 Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, 3and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Ram, 4and Ram the father of Amminʹadab, and Amminʹadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, 5and Salmon the father of Boʹaz by Rahab, and Boʹaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, 6and Jesse the father of David the king.
and Solomon the father of Rehoboʹam, and Rehoboʹam the father of Abiʹjah, and Abiʹjah the father of Asa, 8and Asa the father of Jehoshʹaphat, and Jehoshʹaphat the father of Joram, and Joram the father of Uzziʹah, 9and Uzziʹah the father of Jotham, and Jotham the father of Ahaz, and Ahaz the father of Hezekiʹah, 10and Hezekiʹah the father of Manasʹseh, and Manasʹseh the father of Amos, and Amos the father of Josiʹah, 11and Josiʹah the father of Jechoniʹah and his brothers, at the time of the deportation to Babylon.
12 And after the deportation to Babylon: Jechoniʹah was the father of She-alʹti-el, and She-alʹti-el the father of Zerubʹbabel, 13and Zerubʹbabel the father of Abiʹud, and Abiʹud the father of Eliʹakim, and Eliʹakim the father of Azor, 14and Azor the father of Zadok, and Zadok the father of Achim, and Achim the father of Eliʹud, 15and Eliʹud the father of Eleaʹzar, and Eleaʹzar the father of Matthan, and Matthan the father of Jacob, 16and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called Christ.
17 So all the generations from Abraham to David were fourteen generations, and from David to the deportation to Babylon fourteen generations, and from the deportation to Babylon to the Christ fourteen generations.
23 Jesus, when he began his ministry, was about thirty years of age, being the son (as was supposed) of Joseph, the son of Heli, 24the son of Matthat, the son of Levi, the son of Melchi, the son of Janʹna-i, the son of Joseph, 25the son of Mattathiʹas, the son of Amos, the son of Nahum, the son of Esli, the son of Nagʹga-i, 26the son of Maʹath, the son of Mattathiʹas, the son of Semʹe-in, the son of Josech, the son of Joda, 27the son of Jo-anʹan, the son of Rhesa, the son of Zerubʹbabel, the son of She-alʹti-el, the son of Neri, 28the son of Melchi, the son of Addi, the son of Cosam, the son of Elmaʹdam, the son of Er, 29the son of Joshua, the son of Elieʹzer, the son of Jorim, the son of Matthat, the son of Levi, 30the son of Simeon, the son of Judah, the son of Joseph, the son of Jonam, the son of Eliʹakim, 31the son of Meʹle-a, the son of Menna, the son of Matʹtatha, the son of Nathan, the son of David, 32the son of Jesse, the son of Obed, the son of Boʹaz, the son of Sala, the son of Nahshon, 33the son of Amminʹadab, the son of Admin, the son of Arni, the son of Hezron, the son of Perez, the son of Judah, 34the son of Jacob, the son of Isaac, the son of Abraham, the son of Terah, the son of Nahor, 35the son of Serug, the son of Reʹu, the son of Peleg, the son of Eber, the son of Shelah, 36the son of Ca-iʹnan, the son of Arphaʹxad, the son of Shem, the son of Noah, the son of Lamech, 37the son of Methuʹselah, the son of Enoch, the son of Jared, the son of Mahaʹlale-el, the son of Ca-iʹnan, 38the son of Enos, the son of Seth, the son of Adam, the son of God.