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.
11There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
2And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
3And his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide by what his ears hear;
4but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
and he shall smite the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall slay the wicked.
5Righteousness shall be the girdle of his waist,
and faithfulness the girdle of his loins.
6The wolf shall dwell with the lamb,
and the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
and the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
7The cow and the bear shall feed;
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
8The sucking child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den.
9They shall not hurt or destroy
in all my holy mountain;
for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.
10 In that day the root of Jesse shall stand as an ensign to the peoples; him shall the nations seek, and his dwellings shall be glorious.