Jesse’s Tree
admin 3 September 2014

The Jesse Tree is an extremely frequent theme in Christian art between the 11th and the 15th century, originating from the conceptual elaboration of Isaiah’s prophecy: “a shoot will spring from the stem of Jesse, and a branch from his roots will bear fruit. The spirit of the Lord will rest on Him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and strength, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord” (Isaiah 11,1-2). This is the prophecy of the future divine incarnation. According to traditional interpretation, in addition to indicating the prophecy on the future coming of the Messiah, it reveals also the sense of its salvific mystery as the beneficial intervention of the knowledge in the world.

The earliest known representation can be firmly dated to 1086 and is in the Vyšehrad Codex, the Coronation Gospels of Vratislav II of Bohemia. The scheme was represented in many variations according to the taste of the author and to the space available on the windows of the cathedrals and in the bas-reliefs decorating columns or arches, in illuminated manuscripts and prints, in tapestries and traceries, in sculptures and frescoes. The apex of the development of this motive was reached in the 15th century, while in the following century it started to decline until its complete disappearance with the Counter-Reformation.Starting from the 12th century, the Jesse Tree is frequently associated to the figure of the Triumphant Virgin. Her hieratic character, the proportions frequently larger than those of the other elements of the composition gave Her frequently a true icon character within the scene.

Paolo Schiavo o Battista di Gerio (Pisa 1350-1420), L’Albero di Jesse. Stima € 25.000 – 30.000, venduto per € 445.000

The Mother of God on a throne is depicted frontally, with Her gaze on the believers, while the Child has the scroll of the law in one hand and with the other he blesses the believers. In addition to its link with the diffusion of the cult of Mary, the success of the theme is to be connected to the classifying inclination of the Gothic world. The flexibility of the theme of the Tree allowed, in the 12th-14th centuries, its enrichment with always more complex compositions: in addition to Christ’s ancestors, it is also possible to find prophets and other subjects not necessarily coming from biblical texts.

The Tree of life is an ancient symbol typical of many oriental civilizations and religions that Judaism and Christianity absorbed as an expression of the blood relationships and then used as model to represent the genealogy of the royal and noble descent. According to the Scriptures dreams are the symbol of divine mystery. And Jesse, father of king David, progenitor of Israel decent, is the author of the dream prophesying the coming of Christ; and therefore he is frequently depicted lying or sitting. And the peculiarity of the Jesse Tree stands exactly in the marvelous character of the image and in the rational shape of the scheme.

And this is the work sold during the Cambi auction, a tempera on board with a still uncertain attribution. If Zeri Foundation classifies it as a painting by Battista di Gerio, Volpe thought it had been painted by the Master of Saints Cyrus and Juliet; but it might also be by Paolo Schiavo, a Tuscan painter and illuminator of the 15th century.


Bianca Dolfin


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