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Tree of Jesse

The Tree of Jesse — The Lineage of God’s Grace

by Dr Miriam Gill

The New Testament describes Jesus as a descendant of King David, the son of Jesse (Matthew 1 vv. 1-17 ; Luke 3 vv. 23-38 ). Drawing on Old Testament prophecies, the Tree of Jesse shows the ancestors of Jesus as the trunk and branches of a tree. This is the origin of our phrase ‘family tree’. This image was particularly popular in western art from the twelfth to the fifteenth centuries. Faithful people from the Old Testament, especially the prophets who foretold the Messiah, were included along with Jesus’s direct ancestors. Artists often ‘pruned’ the list of direct ancestors mentioned in the Bible, to focus on King David, King Solomon and the Virgin Mary.

In this beautiful stained glass window the ancestors of Christ form the stem of a tall tree. This learned and Biblical image was popular in art created for cathedrals and religious communities. From the walls of the churches or the pages of illuminated books, the Jesse Tree showed how Jesus connected the Old Testament with the New. Later in the Middle Ages this image became more common in parish churches, reaching a wider, often illiterate audience. Lineage and descent from famous ancestors were important in Dark Age and medieval society so Jesus’s genealogy was interesting, impressive and culturally relevant.

(ROMANESQUE GLASS PAINTER, English, Tree of Jesse,
1170s, Stained glass window, Cathedral, Canterbury)

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