Tree of Jesse Imagery

I was first introduced to the Tree of Jesse imagery by this window in Chartres Cathedral (c.1145-1155, shown left). This imagery was popular because it contained both Old Testament and New Testament themes, since Christ was part of Jesse’s lineage. At the bottom of the window, Jesse is reclining on a bed, with a tree stem growing out of his loins. (I have to admit, the tree stem growing out of Jesse is my favorite part of this imagery. I like how artists have depicted the scripture Isaiah 11:1 literally, even though sometimes I think the trunk is, uh, a little too suggestive of Jesse’s virility.)

The trunk and branches of the tree rise along a central axis of the window. Within the branches are four royal kings, each king filling a square central panel. These kings are not identified by specific attributes, but traditionally David appears as the first king “stemming” from Jesse, followed by Solomon. In this window, it is not certain who the other two kings specifically represent, but they obviously reference the rest of the royal line between Solomon and the Virgin Mary, who is depicted following the four kings. At the top of the tree is Christ, who is depicted after the Virgin.*

The Tree of Jesse has appeared in religious art for centuries, and it is found in all types of mediums. This window from Chartres Cathedral is very similar to the Tree of Jesse window in Saint-Denis (c. 1145), which isn’t surprising, since the windows were made about the same time. I especially like this window, because one of the frames contains a depiction of Abbot Suger presenting the Tree of Jesse window (19th century restoration, detail shown right). It’s a Tree of Jesse within a Tree of Jesse!

Are you familiar with other Tree of Jesse depictions? Do you have a favorite?

*Some of this paragraph was taken from information that I wrote for an academic database. I don’t know if that database will ever get published online, but if it does, just know that I actually did write the content for this post.

  • E says:

    Wow. That's all. Wow.

    Seriously though, it is interesting to be introduced to these things. It's really changed my perspective on how sexuality/fertility/etc. were during those times. It's so bold. I kind of had it in my head that in those times people were really reserved about such images and suggestions.

  • M says:

    Yeah, it is interesting to see the role that sexuality and fertility plays in early religious art. The artists are not trying to be crass or pornographic with their allusions or depictions; they are just making a statement. It's such a different idea than from today's culture, where most things tied to sexuality are lewd and base.

    Not all Tree of Jesse images have sexual allusions like the Chartres window. You can see a couple of examples in this Wikipedia article.

  • Jon says:

    Wow. That is one virile trunk.

    (we're all fixating on that. Did you expect less?)

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.