Signs and Symbols

What is the Tree of Jesse?

According to ancient tradition, Jesus was a direct descendant of King David, who was the son of a successful farmer named Jesse. Beginning in the Middle Ages, the Tree of Jesse became a very widespread visual symbol displayed especially in the stained glass windows of Europe’s great Gothic cathedrals and in illustrated manuscripts of the Bible. Depictions of the Tree typically show an aged Jesse sitting or lying down, with a large tree growing from his upper body or from the middle of his back. On the lower branches and trunk are shown the faces of David and Solomon and their royal descendants, along with other important figures in the genealogy of Jesus. An image of Mary holding the child Jesus typically appears at the apex of the tree. The symbolism emphasizes both Jesus’ royal legitimacy and Mary’s restitution for the evil originally caused by Eve eating from the Tree of Knowledge.

Medieval Gothic-style Cathedral of Notre Dame, Paris. The flying buttresses allow extensive wall space for stained glass, and the huge mandala-like “rose window”over the south transept is rich with biblical symbolism.


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