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Tree of Jesse

christ prophecy virgin stem

An image of great frequency in western medieval art, especially of the Romanesque and Gothic periods, the Tree of Jesse can be seen in manuscript illumination, stained glass windows, and sculpture. The subject was inspired by the prophecy of *Isaiah (11:1-3) that a Messiah would come from the family of the *patriarch Jesse, the father of *David. Early Christian writers such as Tertullian and Saint *Jerome and medieval authors such as Saint *Bernard of Clairvaux interpreted the prophecy to apply to *Christ: the root or stem (radix) refers to Jesse, the rod or shoot (virga) refers to the Virgin *Mary, Page 249  and the fruit or flower ( flos ) of the shoot refers to Christ. Hence, the Tree of Jesse was seen as an allegorical interpretation of the royal genealogy of Christ.


Translated into visual form, the Tree of Jesse appears in several variants ranging in complexity and emphasis. Jesse may be shown alone, reclining, sleeping or dead, with a flowering tree growing from his body. Often, seven doves hover above or alight upon the branches of the tree; the doves symbolize the *Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit from Isaiah’s prophecy. The Virgin Mary may feature as the most prominent element, enthroned in or standing as the central stem of the tree. More elaborate versions of this motif expand the number of branches springing from the stem and include depictions of numerous other *Ancestors of Christ plus additional allegorical figures; the central lineage still traced upward through the figures of Jesse, David, and the Virgin Mary to Christ. Jesse trees are frequently found in sculpture in the portal archivolts of Gothic cathedrals.

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