Tree of Jesse from an English Psalter in Latin by Unknown English Artist

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

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Roots and Branches

Commentary by

Early on, Christians found ways to ‘discover’ Jesus in the Hebrew Bible. The genealogies found in Matthew and Luke recall the ‘begat’ passages in Genesis and link Jesus to his Old Testament ancestors. Matthew (1:1–17) traces a line from Abraham, and Luke’s line (3:23–38) goes all the way back to Adam. For Luke, Jesus is also ‘son of David, the son of Jesse’ (vv.31–32).

In the Middle Ages, the prophecy of Isaiah 11, with its mention of Jesse as the stump and root of a Davidic lineage, took visual form as a royal family tree. It shows Jesus as the fulfilment of a messianic inheritance ‘rooted’ in the Old Testament and made manifest in a proliferation of medieval ‘Jesse trees’ produced in various media. In this early thirteenth-century manuscript illumination from Germany, we see Jesse, bottom centre, as the source from whom all genealogical blessings flow. The largest figure in the composition, he lies recumbent, eyes closed, suggesting sleep, a visionary state, or even death. From his groin extends a ‘shoot’ that supports David the Psalmist and then divides, becoming a branch that winds its way upward through history.

At the centre of the composition, the Virgin Mary mirrors the posture of Jesse within a manger tableau that shows the infant Son of God blessed by the earthly Joseph. Above the Holy Family appear the four Evangelists clustered around an image of the full-grown Christ. At the apex of the composition the Holy Spirit descends from the Father (a face in the heavens) in the form of a dove bearing seven tongues of flame. No doubt a representation of the seven spiritual gifts (traditionally identified on the basis of Isaiah 11:3 as wisdom, understanding, counsel, strength, knowledge, piety, fear of the Lord), they will come to rest on the ‘shoot’ who has sprung from Jesse’s tree (Isaiah 11:1–2).

From the minimal reference to this shoot in Isaiah’s prophecy, the artist works within an established Christian tradition to display a profusion of figures and a complex backstory—a richly fruitful, Testament-spanning family tree.