Approaching the celebration of Jesus Christ’s birth, Christian’s remember those who preceded Him in the flesh. The holy forefathers of Christ, and all those who in other ways prepared for His coming, are brought together in the Root of Jesse Icon. In often elaborate ways, the Root of Jesse icons explain and celebrate the events leading up to the Nativity.
Composition of the Root of Jesse Icon
Known in Greek as the Root of Jesse (Ρίζα Ιεσσαί), this icon is also known in Russian as the Tree of Jesse (Древо Иессеево). It’s therefore unsurprising that most images of this type depict a large tree springing forth from Jesse, who is often shown reclining.
Jesse was the father of King David and though we know little else about him, this fact alone is significant. In Jewish prophecy the Messiah was supposed to be descended from David, and David himself is considered as a foreshadowing of the person of Jesus Christ. And so Jesse is shown as the root of this line of descent which culminates in Christ, who is depicted centrally within the tree as a child, sitting on the lap of His mother.
Jesse is shown asleep as though dead, perhaps because it is through the legacy of his offspring, rather than any recorded deeds during life, that Jesse is called righteous. More likely is that the imagery of the tree sprouting from Jesse’s side as he lays in slumber deliberately echoes the sleep Adam was put under before God brought forth Eve from his side.
The branches surrounding Jesus and His mother depict smaller images of Christ’s forefathers along with those who prophesied of His coming. These can be as simple or as complicated as the iconographer wishes, but usually contain King David and his son Solomon along with a few of the prophets. Each of these predecessors of Christ is often shown with a scroll containing the relevant prophecy, and sometimes an accompanying image. For example, Jacob will be shown with a ladder, recalling his vision (Gen 28:10–19) which foretold of Christ’s birth. A fuller explanation of various Old Testament prophets and how they appear in icons is given in my post on the Akathist Hymn | Prophecies and Praises. The arrangement of the prophets around the Mother of God in the Akathist Icon is deliberately meant to imitate the Tree of Jesse.
Regardless of the “tree’s” complexity, the many branches surrounding the dominating figures of the Theotokos and Christ are clearly intended as a glorification of Jesus’ origins as well as a celebration of His birth.
Origins of the Imagery
Most icons of the Tree of Jesse date from the 12th to the 16th centuries yet the imagery which the icons are based upon is ancient. The reason the mysterious figure of Jesse is used as the root of the tree (why not Adam if it is a genealogy?) is because of Isaiah’s prophecy:
“There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.” (Is 11:1)
The genealogy of Jesus given at the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel, as well as Luke’s genealogy, confirm that Christ’s earthly heritage can be traced back to Jesse, the father of King David. The “stump” – the trunk of this family tree – is therefore the House of David, which is why David and his son Solomon are sometimes shown centrally, one above the other, as in the Psalter illumination above.
Most icons depict the Mother of God at the centre of the tree, as the “Rod of Jesse”, with Christ sat on her lap, as though blossoming forth from her. This imagery too is ancient, described as early as the 2nd century by Irenaeus of Lyons:
“Thereby the prophet says that it is of her, who is descended from David and from Abraham, that He is born. For Jesse was a descendant of Abraham, the father of David; the descendant who conceived Christ, the Virgin, is thus become the ‘rod’. Moses too worked his miracles before Pharaoh with a rod; and among others too of mankind, the rod is a sign of empire. And the ‘Flower’ refers to His body, for it was made to bud forth by the Spirit.”
Later in the 4th century, St Ambrose of Milan writes:
“The root is the household of the Jews, the rod is Mary, the Flower of Mary is Christ. She is rightly called a rod, for she is of the royal lineage, of the house and family of David. Her Flower is Christ, Who destroyed the stench of worldly pollution and poured out the fragrance of eternal life. As He Himself said, ‘I am a flower of the plain, a lily of the valleys'”
By the eigth-century, St Cosmas has enshrined this belief in hymnography, confirming it as more than simply an opinion, but as a confessed belief of the Church:
“Rod of the root of Jesse [Is. 11:1], and flower that blossomed from his stem, O Christ, You have sprung from the Virgin. From the mountain overshadowed by the forest You have come, made flesh from her that knew not wedlock, O God, Who are not formed from matter.”
(First Canon, Ode Four, Nativity Matins)
The painted images of the Mother of God as the “Rod of Jesse” that survive from the 11th and 12th centuries onwards is a further “enshrinement” of this belief. Not only do the Holy Father opine that the Mother of God is the “Rod of the Root of Jesse”, but the faithful as a whole confess it in hymns and in paint.
A joyous and peaceful Christmas to everyone!
Extracts from the Prayers and Hymns for Christmas (contains the hymn mentioning the “Rod of the Root of Jesse”)
Wikipedia entry on the Tree of Jesse image. The article dwells on the Tree of Jesse in Western art (where it is more common), and is interesting for this reason. There are also many more examples of this image in art.
An excellent example of a Tree of Jesse Icon (with the prophets labelled!). The icon is modern, but based on a late 16th/early 17th century version painted by Michael Damaskinos.