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Tree of Jesse from an English Psalter in Latin by Unknown English Artist
Untitled (Rejoice!), from 'Inflammatory Essays' by Jenny Holzer
The Peaceable Kingdom by Edward Hicks

Unknown English artist

Tree of Jesse from an English Psalter in Latin, 1190–1210, Illuminated manuscript, 27.7 x 19.3 cm, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Munich, BSB Clm 835, fol. 121r, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Munich

Jenny Holzer

Untitled (Rejoice!), from 'Inflammatory Essays', 1979–82, Offset lithograph in black on pink wove paper, 542 x 542 mm, The Art Institute of Chicago; Gift of David C. and Sarajean Ruttenberg, 1998.914.8, © Jenny Holzer, member Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY The Art Institute of Chicago / Art Resource, NY

Edward Hicks

The Peaceable Kingdom, c.1833, Oil on canvas, 44.5 x 60.2 cm, Worcester Art Museum, Massachusetts; Museum purchase, 1934.65, Worcester Art Museum, Massachusetts, USA / Bridgeman Images

The Apocalypse Will Blossom

Comparative Commentary by

In chapter 11, Isaiah addresses his prophecy to an anxious people and offers them hope. They may currently be like a felled tree, a mere stump, but from their loss will come, in the Lord’s own time, renewal—a shoot, a branch, a leader, an earth transformed into a holy Mount Zion.

The dating of this text is uncertain. It may be as early as the eighth century BCE or as late as the post-exilic period. The anxiety it attempts to assuage is a factor in any case.

Edward Hicks takes Isaiah’s text to heart, returning to it again and again in the first half of the nineteenth century as he imagines the mountain of the Lord as a new American Eden. Animals (and the otherwise fractious people they may represent) live among one another in peace. A ‘little child’, presides, and in the foreground we see both the nursing and the weaned children of Isaiah 11:8. Isaiah’s emphasis, however, is on an adult offshoot of Jesse, one who has the spirit of the Lord within him, who is able to serve as God’s regent not only by the exercise of wisdom, righteousness, and faithfulness, but by the proper exercise of power. The poor will be raised up and judged fairly, the wicked will be ‘put down’. A fulfilment of that prophecy is suggested by the inserted scene of William Penn making peace with Native Americans, not by fiat but by mutual agreement—a Quaker consensus or ‘sense of the meeting’.

In the anonymous medieval ‘stump of Jesse’ illumination we see that the Davidic lineage has long been ‘sprouting’ in obedience to the initial divine command to ‘be fruitful and multiply’ (Genesis 1:28; 9:7). From Jesse, there issues a patriarchal forest of witnesses. The tree’s curling branches showcase David’s son Solomon, the Temple Builder, and Moses called to action by the Burning Bush. But if Jesse is the father of the line, Mary’s motherhood brings it to full flowering. Indeed in Jesse's visual ‘rhyming’ with Mary, we might be prompted to discern two nativity scenes here and not just one: the Old Testament birthing the New. And we see it is not always blood that unites those in this lineage; they include the Evangelists, brought in by providence not birth.

Hicks’s Peaceable Kingdom looks forward—anticipating an abiding peace. The Jesse Tree looks backward—tracking a descent from an ancient ancestor and an ascent to the birth of Christ. The conceptual artist Jenny Holzer’s work focusses on the ambiguous precarity of the present.

Renowned for text-based works that are projected as images onto stable architecture (buildings, billboards, marquees, urban landscapes), Holzer’s messages are typically ephemeral: they endure only as long as does the projection. The words she uses, often not her own, confront, even assault the viewer, like the biblical ‘handwriting on the wall’ that spoke truth to power at Belshazzar’s Feast: ‘You have been weighed in the balances and found wanting’ (Daniel 5:24–28). Her messages, however, are mixed, more provocative than prophetic. They come from far and wide; they do not constitute a consistent or singular Word of the Lord.

Holzer’s ‘voice’, through the ventriloquization of multiple other voices, is at full force in her ‘Inflammatory Essays’ from the late 1970s—short, mass-produced texts that pull no punches and take no prisoners. The rod of her mouth is sharp even on throwaway paper. When the works were first made, one would have looked in vain for the sources of the words she presents in italicized upper case, even if today Google searches might help identify the famous and the infamous. Although she speaks as one who has authority, she does not channel any ‘Word of the Lord’ or invoke a Higher Power. If anything, the ‘essay’ given here echoes left wing agitprop and Marxist ‘gospel’: ‘DO NOT SUPPORT/ PALLIATIVE GESTURES; THEY CONFUSE/ THE PEOPLE AND DELAY THE INEVITABLE/ CONFRONTATION’. Nonetheless, Holzer replicates the prophet’s alternating mixture of weal and woe. ‘OUR TIMES ARE INTOLERABLE’, but ‘THE WORST IS A HARBINGER OF THE BEST’.

Isaiah’s prophecy comforts an anxious Israel with hope for restoration; the Jesse Tree presents Jesus’s genealogy as the providential fulfilment of ancient expectation; Hicks’s painting depicts a realized eschatology in a corner of Pennsylvania. Meanwhile, Holzer reinvents the voice of the prophet, so that forceful speech is exposed as a weapon of destruction as well as of ‘wisdom and understanding’ (Isaiah 11:2). But hope prevails, as it does in Isaiah: ‘THE APOCALYPSE WILL BLOSSOM’ gets the essay’s last word.