The Tree of Jesse; c. 1240; miniature, tempera, ink and gold on parchment; manuscript Ludwig VIII 2, Fol. 7 V; Würzburg, Germany.


The tree of Jesse

To understand

Jesse is lying; he is asleep or meditates while a sucker grows out of his belly.

This is a stem or a small shrub , Jesus is its flower, at the very top, but he is seldom figured as an adult, for the cult of Mary has preferred to show the Infant Jesus in the arms of the Virgin Mary. Though the evangelical genealogy mentions Joseph as a descendant of David,  the apocryphal gospels have added the idea that Mary also descended from David and then from Jesse.

As the Gospel according to Luke traces the genealogy back to the first man, Jesse’s Tree can become the tree of Adam but the latter is recognizable by his nakedness.

The shape of the tree

It has naturally a vertical extension that explains its use in the windows of cathedrals or as a decoration on the pillars of houses. Horizontal compositions are rarer.

 The branches of the ancestors vary from 2 to 12; they bear portraits that are hardly recognizable, except those of David and Solomon. Sometimes, the characters are represented full-length but, more often than not, their portraits are placed inside blazons.

They can also be replaced by doves that evoke the gifts of the Holy Ghost. Finally there are trees of virtues that have nothing to do with Jesse.

The iconography of Jesse’s Tree was important between the 12th century and the 16th century then it disappeared.

Not be confused with


Several trees can be confused with that of Jesse.


The Tree of the Holy Kinship

Site origine



 The tree of the genealogy of the Virgin

with St Anne sitting in a high chair, with her hand on the shoulder of the Virgin holding the Infant Jesus. From St Anne grows a tree with, on its branches, the Virgin’s sisters and their boys: St James the Major and St James the Minor, St John the Evangelist… The so-called theme of the Holy Kinship comes from the Golden Legend..

See the Holy Family



The Tree of Life; miniature; manuscript Français 13096 f° 83; Manuscript Department; Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris.

Site BNF


The Tree of Life is that of the earthly Paradise

(but this is not the tree of knowledge, that of the Fall). Adam and Eve are standing at the foot of the Tree of Life whose apples are the round faces of their descendants, at the top of which reigns swaddled Christ, in his form as a child. In the four corners of the scene, four medallions represent the four rivers of Paradise that water the earth and gives life to it.

See the Fall


The Tree of Vices and Virtues; Arbor Moralis; Raymond LULLE; 1515 (1625) engraving, Arbor scientiae, Lyon, R 7892; Department of Printed Books; Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris

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 The Tree of Vices and Virtues

It is composed of a trunk divided into two branches (the Pythagorean Y), at the top of which Christ is enthroned. The latter actively works for the good: armed with an axe, he strives to cut off the high branches of evil. They are on the left and evoke the 7 capital sins facing the 7 Christian virtues.




The biblical narrative

The Book of Isaiah, chapter 11

And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots: And the spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him (Isaiah 11:1-2)

The Gospel according to Matthew begins with “The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham” which is followed at verse 6 by “And Jesse begot David the king” and ends at verse 16 by “And Jacob begot Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ”..

The Gospel according to Luke also gives, in Chapter 3, a genealogy of Christ, but the other way,. It begins with “And Jesus himself began to be about thirty years of age, being (as was supposed) the son of Joseph” (3:23) and further down it reads “…who was the son of David, who was the son of Jesse…” (3:31-32) and ends with “…who was the son of Seth, who was the son of Adam, who was the son of God” (3:38)..

These genealogies do not agree but, in both cases, David’s father is quite present. 



Isaiah’s “messianic” text is taken up by the New Testament to assert that Jesus if the fulfilment of the promise made to the Israelites. Let us not forget that Messiah in Hebrew corresponds to Christ in Greek.


See similar pictures


In the Renaissance, Jesse’s Trees are rarer but the characters liven up.  

A Jesse Tree; attributed to Girolamo GENGA; c. 1535 gum or egg white on paper; National Gallery, London.

National Gallery London



The Tree of Jesse; Gerard HORENBOUT; 1510-20; tempera, gold and ink on parchment; from the “Spinola Hours”; J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

Paul Getty trust


Two more original trees: on the left, Jesse is standing with the tree growing out of his back; on the right, the tree is to the glory of Mary. It makes a full turn and the last characters are Anne and Joachim, the Virgin’s parents who, according to the tradition, kiss under a gate of Jerusalem to conceive her.


The Tree of Jesse; 15th century; miniature; manuscript 416 f° 7; Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal, Paris.

Site BNF



The Tree of Jesse; 15th century; from the Golden Legend; miniature Français 245 f° 84; Manuscript Department ; Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris.

Site BNF


A tree of Jesse whose top is a grown-up Christ.  

The Tree of Jesse; 12th century; miniature from the “Bible des Capucins”; Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris.





Further developments


 The Tree of Jesse manifests the wait for the Messiah. 

 This religious wait has a great importance in our civilisation. Whether it is the wait for the coming of the Messiah for Jews or that for his return for Christians, it always signifies the end of History, God’s coming, Peace and felicity for all men… This wait explains the foundation in Europe then in the United States, of many sects, that is to say of religious movements that want to build a messianic society to bring forward the date of the return of Christ.

In its profane version, the messianic wait takes the form of a wait for peace and happiness and, therefore, of the belief in progress.
The announcement of a radious future explains the success of political movements and ideologies, of which Marxism was the main example in the 19th and 20th centuries.


 The genealogical tree


Genealogies have played a great role since the Middle-Ages, at first in aristocratic lineages, then for a few years in all families. Generations and sibships are often represented by the branches of a tree whose common ancestor is the root.

The Genealogy of Francis I and Queen Claude; 1517; miniature from the Consecration,
crowning and entry of the Queen and Duchess, Madame Claude de France; manuscript Français 5750 f° 45;
Manuscript Department; Bibiothèque Nationale de France, Paris.




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