The Tree of Jesse—a representation of Jesus’s genealogy in the form of a tree—was a popular subject in medieval Christian art. Its name derives from the messianic prophecy of Isaiah 11:1 and 10: “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit. . . . In that day the root of Jesse, who shall stand as a signal for the peoples—of him shall the nations inquire, and his resting place shall be glorious.”
Paul paraphrases this passage in Romans 15, linking it explicitly to Christ: “For I tell you that Christ became a servant to the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. . . . Isaiah says, ‘The root of Jesse will come, even he who arises to rule the Gentiles; in him will the Gentiles hope’” (vv. 8–9a, 12). Here Paul drives home the plural peoples and nations that Isaiah uses: the messiah has come not just for the Jews but for the whole world.
The upper section of the 12th-century Jesse Tree window at Chartres Cathedral in France showing Jesus at the apex and Mary below him.
Tree of Jesse with the Madonna and Child (Cod. St. Peter perg. 139, Blatt 7v), from the Scherenberg Psalter, ca. 1260. Held at the Badische Landesbibliothek (Baden State Library), Karlsruhe, Germany.
Jan Wierix (Flemish, 1544–1625), Tree of Jesse, 1573. Engraving [MH 223] after Peter van der Borcht (1530–1613). Published in Antwerp by Christoph Plantin.
Russian icon of the Tree of Jesse, 17th century.
Unlike the schematic family trees with which we are familiar, which place the first ancestor at the top and the present generation at the bottom, the Tree of Jesse is read from bottom to top, so as to give Jesus top billing. The figures depicted underneath him, taken from Matthew’s and Luke’s genealogies, vary, but because the Tree’s main purpose is to map the messianic line, most depictions at least include David and Solomon, two of the few godly kings of Israel. Taken altogether the Tree represents a dynasty whose rule has been established eternally in Christ. As God promised David,
And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever. (2 Samuel 7:16)
Jesus is the one who has fulfilled this promise, which the angel Gabriel emphasized to Mary during his annunciation visit:
The Lord God will give to him [Jesus] the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end. (Luke 1:32b–33)
The Tree of Jesse is not to be confused with the Tree of Life, another botanical metaphor used elsewhere in scripture to stand for Christ himself. Though the analogies are certainly related, their iconography is different: the Tree of Life usually has the crucified Christ as its focal point and oftentimes a river flowing from its base (based on Revelation 22:1–4), whereas the Tree of Jesse, in addition to having a much larger cast of characters, features Jesus as a babe in arms or enthroned, and the trunk is usually growing out of Jesse’s side. Both trees speak of the salvation wrought by Christ, but one via the ultimate act of atonement, and the other via the Incarnation, with an emphasis on the long period of waiting Israel had to endure.
The root/shoot/branch imagery of Isaiah raises several questions for me.
Why is Jesus called the root of Jesse? Isn’t Jesse the root of Jesus? Continue reading