The first post in this series talked mainly about the Tree of Knowledge/Death, and the second post talked about the Tree of Life. In this post we will look at the two trees together, (along with digressions). It’s kind of a Lutheran thing. That is, §3 below has over a dozen different images derived pretty directly from the beliefs of Martin Luther, and §4 is also tied to Luther and German Protestants.
And two trees.
§1. We’ve Seen This…
Some examples of the two trees together were shown in the previous post. Here is a little recapitulation, as background for something more interesting. The 15th-century Salzburg Missal conflates the two trees, with the Serpent representing the trunk of the Tree of Knowledge.
As an aside, a tree with apples and Hosts was a prop in Paradiesspiel (Paradise Play), a late medieval mystery play about the Fall, which was performed before Christmas. Because we will return to this topic below, this quote from the Encyclopedia Britannica entry seems worth including along with the Salzburg Missal image:
Christmas tree, an evergreen tree, often a pine or a fir, decorated with lights and ornaments as a part of Christmas festivities. The use of evergreen trees, wreaths, and garlands to symbolize eternal life was a custom of the ancient Egyptians, Chinese, and Hebrews. Tree worship was common among the pagan Europeans and survived their conversion to Christianity in the Scandinavian customs of decorating the house and barn with evergreens at the New Year to scare away the Devil and of setting up a tree for the birds during Christmastime. It survived further in the custom, also observed in Germany, of placing a Yule tree at an entrance or inside the house during the midwinter holidays.
The modern Christmas tree, though, originated in western Germany. The main prop of a popular medieval play about Adam and Eve was a “paradise tree,” a fir tree hung with apples, that represented the Garden of Eden. The Germans set up a paradise tree in their homes on December 24, the religious feast day of Adam and Eve. They hung wafers on it (symbolizing the host, the Christian sign of redemption); in a later tradition the wafers were replaced by cookies of various shapes. Candles, symbolic of Christ, were often added.
The Paradise Play about the Fall and Expulsion was performed prior to Christmas, which celebrates the Incarnation. (We will return to that pairing as well.) The 16th-century woodcut below has the two tree trunks intertwined, and again we see the deadly apples and life-giving Hosts. Again, from Germany.
The matched pairs of trees, with arbor vitiorum, (rooted in Superbia and crowned by Luxuria), and arbor virtutum, (rooted in Humilitas and crowned with Charitas), are another example. There are many of those pairs. The Liber Floridus has one of the earliest and most striking examples.
The Liber Floridus of St. Omer, Ghent, c. 1120, contrasted the fruit of two similarly shapped trees which are explicitly captioned “arbor bona – Ecclesia” and “arbor mala – Synagoga”. They appear on the spectator’s left and right respectively in a double-page image; the arrangement is that of Ecclesia and Synagoga in crucifixion iconography (i.e., to Christ’s right and left). The burgeoning arbor bona bears twelve varigated fruits, alluding to the Tree of Life in Rev. 22.2 and labelled as the fruits of the Spirit(1) listed in Gal. 5.22-24.(2) The arbor mala is of identical shape but barren of leaves and with withered figs identified as the fruits of the flesh. The cursing of the unfruitful tree in Mt. 21.19 is recalled and the axes laid at the root of the arbor mala hint at other literary origins of the image: John the Baptist’s sermon on repentance, warning of the fire and axe awaiting “every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit” (Mt. 3.10), repeated in Mt. 7.16-20, “Wherefore by their fruits you shall known them.”(3)
Seven centuries later, (c. 1850s), the matched pair of Currier and Ives prints were another example. The Sinner’s Tree of Death receives Wrath from above, while the Christian’s Tree of Life basks in Grace from on high.
We’ll get back to that pair, after...
§2. New Hieroglyphics
A brief digression about rebus puzzles. “Rebus” is a general term used loosely to refer to writing interspersed with, or even replaced by, images of some sort. It offers limitless flexibility: the connection may be direct, (a hand represents a hand), or indirect, (a hand represents pointing), or based on the sound of a word representing the pictured subject, (a hand represents the word “and”), or punning from the word, figures of speech, or anything else the inventor devises. In the image to the right the Reaper and Homo Bulla figures are conventional allegories referring to Death and Life, while the crown simply refers to the word “crown”.
The rebus is a throwback to pictograms, a primitive form of written language which continued to be used and incorporated into more advanced writing systems. Being childishly
stupid playful, they have great appeal. Rebus works have taken many forms, from Renaissance heraldry to modern game shows.
Rebus puzzles were especially popular in the English speaking world during the 18th and 19th century. They were used for political complaints and social commentary, romantic epistles, children’s books, satirical broadsides, etc. Examples survive of rebus letters written by famous authors including Mark Twain and Lewis Carroll Notably, they remain popular today in the form of emoji being used in lieu of words in text messages on cell phones or on the Internet, linked together by orbiting satellites. Pictograms survive.
So, what’s that rebus shit got to do with our walk in the woods? Well, back in the first tree post was a Tree of Death image titled The New Hieroglyphical Bible, dated 1794. And what the hell is a hieroglyphical Bible? It was a rebus Bible. Children’s Bibles of various sorts have been produced, usually being heavily illustrated extreme abridgements – the “good stuff” with pictures. Rebus bibles were a natural outgrowth of that market for entertaining children’s Bibles. Rebus puzzles were known as hieroglyphic puzzles, and so the resulting books were called hieroglyphic Bibles. Are we there? Let’s go on.
The Tree of Wrath and the Tree of Grace, two Currier and Ives designs from the 1850s, above, were used a half century earlier in the 1794 edition(4) of A New Hieroglyphical Bible for the Amusement & Instruction of Children: Being a Selection of the Most Useful Lessons, and Most Interesting Narratives; (Scripturally Arranged) from Genesis to the Revelations: Embellished with Familiar Figures & Striking Emblems Neatly Engraved.
In a later edition (1818), the angels and demons were omitted, along with the skeletal Death and his axe. The trees themselves, however, are nearly identical to the earlier designs, or to the later Currier and Ives prints.
There is a world of potential associations in these two trees, as trees of Wrath (Judgment) and Grace.
§3. Martin Luther and Lucas Cranach
Genesis was written by Jews, for Jews. Jews were the good guys, the Chosen People™ who would lead the world to redemption. The Torah or Law of Moses was a great gift from God and mankind’s path to redemption. “If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? and if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door.” (Ge 4:7.) The epitome of the Law was embodied in the Ten Commandments and its essence was expressed in the Golden Rule. However, this was usually not conceived in terms of bodily resurrection and immortality in an afterlife. These were later, Hellenistic accretions.
For Christians, the Jews were the bad guys who denied the divinity and supernatural significance of the mythical Christ. Christians demonized the Jews, and constantly compared their Ecclesia, with its saving Grace, to the barren Synagoga, lacking such salvation. This is clearly expressed in the Liber Floridus, (above), where Ecclesia is explicitly identified with the Tree of Life and Synagoga with the Tree of Knowledge/Death. Even something as superficially non-denominational as the hieroglyphic trees of Grace and Wrath are implicitly denouncing the Jews as sinners deserving hellfire. Those who do not accept Jesus as the Jewish messiah do not receive God’s saving Grace, and are accordingly judged as sinners on the Day of Wrath.
Then came the Protestant Reformation. The same two trees, and the associated two paths or choices in life, were redefined again. Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553) adopted the idea illustrated in the Liber Floridus trees, identifying the Tree of Life with the good guys and the Tree of Death with the bad. Reformed Christianity (Luther’s followers or, more generally, Protestants), became associated with the Tree of Life, salvation via Grace, while the Roman Catholic Church was identified with the Tree of Death, damnation through mankind’s failure to live up to the Law. Cranach expressed this in a series of paintings and prints, usually titled either The Law and the Gospel or Allegory of Law and Grace.
These works by Cranach convey a generic concept of choice and the Two Paths motif, but also imply a condemnation of the Roman Catholic Church. The designs were based on the theology of Martin Luther (1483-1546), who had a particular set of distinctions in mind, and they were more didactic than merely devotional. Unfortunately there does not seem to be an English translation of the broadsheet online, so I’ll just fake it.
There are eleven (or more) vignettes in this image. Chronologically, we start with (1) Adam and Eve and the Fall of Man. This, as we’ve seen in various works, leads to (2) Death and the Devil hounding man to Hell. Some 26 generations later, (3) Moses came along with the Law and God’s promise that (4) if we were good enough we might be saved on Judgment Day. However, only perfect obedience would merit the perfect reward of eternal life, so we seem doomed to fail. We need God’s help. Note that the tree dividing the two panels is half-dead, half living. The side facing the Law is barren, while the side facing Grace is leafed out.
On the right side we see (A1) the Tabernacle in the desert, home to the Old Testament “presence of God”. “And they shall make me a sanctuary, and I will dwell in the midst of them”. (Exodus 25:8.) From the perspective of Christians, this is a foreshadowing of the Incarnation: “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us”. (John 1:14.) This echoes the pairing of the Paradise Play with Advent/Christmas celebrations, discussed above. We also see (A2) the bronze serpent (Nu 21:8-9) which was another type of Christ.(5) In the next background scene, (B1) an angel appears to shepherds below, heralding the Incarnation – the New Testament presence of God. Another (B2) angel appears to Mary, shown on a hilltop. This leads to (C) Christ’s redemptive sacrifice and (D) resurrection to triumph over Death and the Devil, permitting (E) baptism in the Blood of the Lamb, via the Holy Spirit. We need merely accept the saving Grace from God.
That’s the gist of it, iconographically. It seems perfectly conventional, and in fact it is. Any Protestant heresies lie in the text and interpretation rather than the images per se, implicit rather than explicit. In many other images by Cranach his anti-Catholic views are explicit. Getting back to our topic, notice how the composition puts the tree from the Garden near the left edge, the “tree” of the Cross near the right edge, and uses another tree to divide the two dispensations.
There were a number of such works, paintings and prints, made by Cranach, his son, and other followers including Hans Holbein, and copies of the copies. Here are a half dozen that are online.
My favorite is by Hans Holbein the Younger. (Below.) Notice how many of the details are maintained from Cranach’s design. Some things are moved around within the composition: Moses is put on a mountain top, and the Tabernacle and Brazen Serpent are moved to the Old Testament side. (The Serpent is labeled Mysterium Justificationis, indicating justification by faith.) The more egregious allegorical elements are toned down, notably the literal Lamb is replaced by Christ, and the firehose spray of blood is merely implied by the Baptist’s gesture. This is the caption from the National Galleries Scotland display of Holbein’s An Allegory of the Old and New Testaments, from the 1530s.
The images and inscriptions provide a painted sermon. The central theme, encouraged by the Reformation, is the contrast between the unforgiving Old Testament Law (LEX) on the left, and the forgiving Grace of the New Testament (GRATIA) at the right. Man (HOMO)'s failure to obey the commandments God gave to Moses, led to sin (PECCATUM) and death (MORS - the skeleton). However, man is forgiven and achieves salvation (VICTORIA NOSTRA) through Christ's Crucifixion and Resurrection. Man sits between the Old Testament prophet Isaiah and St John the Baptist, who points the way forward to Christ 'the Lamb of God' (AGNUS DEI).
Just for fun, check out the little Devil underneath Death in the lower-right corner, under Christ’s foot. It looks more like a space alien than a typical devil or demon. Other printed versions of the composition were also made, like this one by Pieter Nagel, circa 1567. Each composition is unique, but all share a number of the same features listed above.
Protestants loved this composition. They used a version of it as the title page for some editions of the Bible.
The Lutheran theologian Johann Hess (1490 -1547) is buried in front of the main altar of the Breslauer Magdalene Church, in Breslau, Poland. A variation of the Cranach design is part of his marker... so, it got around some.
§4. The Christmas Tree
Before we leave Luther’s trees this bright December morning, we have to get back to the Christmas Tree. A legend suggests that Luther was responsable for popularizing the idea of an evergreen tree, decorated with red apples and lit candles, as an appropriate Christmas display. (Cf. the Paradise Play, above.) The image below is from the 1854 book, The Life of Martin Luther and the Reformation in Germany.
The modern custom(6) of decorated Christmas trees did (apparently) originate in Germany, although in Luther’s time it probably had not developed into the practice of household displays like that depicted. Also, some of the earliest published representations of an indoor Christmas tree were of Martin Luther and his family celebrating with a decorated and candlelit tree, so there is that much truth to the legend. However, these pictures are from the 19th century. In 1845 Carl August Schwerdgeburth depicted Martin Luther and his family gathered around a lighted Christmas tree. This engraving was copied and widely reproduced.
In 1841, Youth’s Keepsake: A Christmas and New Year’s Gift for Young People, had a lighted Christmas tree picture. In 1848 Queen Victoria and Prince Albert (a German) were pictured with a lighted tree in a Christmas supplement to the Illustrated London News. An Americanized version of this design appeared in Godey’s Lady’s Book in 1850. These depictions were significant in making Christmas trees a standard part of the holiday celebration in the English speaking world.
So... Christmas trees were originally associated with a late-medieval mystery play about the Fall, performed during the Advent period leading up to Christmas. The popularization of Christmas trees appears to have gotten started in 19th-century Germany, spreading to England and America initially via German immigrants. One of the earliest depictions (below) comes from an 1831 German book titled The Christmas Tree: An Educational and Entertaining Gift Book for Girls and Boys.(7) In the frontispiece, the Christmas tree is explicitly contrasted with the Tree of Knowledge/Death shown on the Wall. The Christmas tree is presented by an angel, and is crowned by a radiant Eye of Providence above a radiant Sun. It is the Tree of Life or, more precisely, the combined tree of the Paradise Play.
Maybe the modern ritual(8) of Christmas trees is less a Pagan survival than commonly assumed, and more a Christian innovation. Maybe not, but it’s a nice pic of the two trees.
Fröhliche Weihnachten and Merry Saturnalia!
(P.S., more trees to come.)
✎ 1. The five leftmost virtues, from the top of the page, are longsuffering, patience, chastity, joy, and peace. The five in the center are faith, meekness, hope, sobriety, and goodness. The three at the bottom of the tree are restraint, charity, and modesty.
✎ 2. Ga 5:22-24: fructus autem Spiritus est caritas gaudium pax longanimitas bonitas benignitas fides modestia continentia adversus huiusmodi non est lex qui autem sunt Christi carnem crucifixerunt cum vitiis et concupiscentiis.
✎ 3. O'Reilly, Jennifer. “The Trees of Eden in Mediaeval Iconography”, in A Walk in the Garden: Biblical, Iconographical and Literary Images of Eden, 1992, p.188.
✎ 4. The date, 1794, seems to be used online for different editions. It is presumably correct for one of them and incorrect for others, but do you really care?
✎ 5. And the Lord said to him: Make a brazen serpent, and set it up for a sign: whosoever being struck shall look on it, shall live. Moses therefore made a brazen serpent, and set it up for a sign: which when they that were bitten looked upon, they were healed. (Nu 21:8-9.)
✎ 6. This section is all about the modern custom. Ancient celebrations of the Winter Solstice using trees, (cf. objections by Jeremiah 10:2-4 and Tertullian), medieval practices, and so on, are another matter. As actual precursors there are things like, “A Bremen guild chronicle of 1570 reports that a small tree decorated with "apples, nuts, dates, pretzels and paper flowers" was erected in the guild-house for the benefit of the guild members' children, who collected the dainties on Christmas Day.” The modern practice appears to have become established in 18th-century Germany, and then spread widely in the 19th century.
✎ 7. Der Weihnachtsbaum: Ein Bildungs-und Unterhaltungsbüch, als Gefchenk für die Jugend beyderley Geschlechts, (The Christmas Tree: An Educational and Entertainment Book as a Gift for the Youth of Both Sexes); by Sebastian Willibald Schießler; publ. Josef Bermann, Vienna, 1831.
✎ 8. See note #6.