Thursday, November 26, 2015

The Tree of Life

Make that plural: Trees of Life.

The previous post talked mainly about the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden, and iconographic variations in representing it as the Tree of Death.(1) Some two dozen examples were included, most of which should seem familiar to anyone reading about pre-Modern European art. Many examples included a personified Death lurking about the Tree of Knowledge. This post will focus on some traditions regarding the Tree of Life. The Tree of Life was identified with the Cross, a common method of capital punishment in ancient Rome, which is paradoxical at best. The Tree of Life was also identified with Jesus himself, and used as a metaphor for his life, as well as being identified with the Virgin and the Church. Saint Bonaventure’s development of the life of Jesus via a tree structure will be discussed and illustrated, because of its broad influence. Some modern Tree of Life prints will also be presented, to show how the medieval fascination with the Two Paths motif and with the Devil and Death continued. Finally in this post we will mention some of the larger arboreal context, before getting back to the good stuff (macabre moral allegories) in the next post.

§1. Christ’s Cross as the Tree of Life

Christian mythology gets deep and weird here. The first step is a big one, so we will take our time with it. The Bible talks about two trees in middle of the Garden of Eden, the Tree of Knowledge and the Tree of Life: “And the Lord God brought forth of the ground all manner of trees, fair to behold, and pleasant to eat of: the tree of life also in the midst of paradise: and the tree of knowledge of good and evil.” (Ge 2:8-9.) However, the Tree of Life gets short shrift, and was commonly left out of illustrated Genesis cycles. The focus was on the Fall of Man, and therefore on the Tree of Knowledge. Here is a typical example, this one from the 1350s, in which God points out the Tree of Knowledge and then Adam and Eve eat from that tree.

The Fall concerns that one tree, which brings death: “And he commanded him, saying: Of every tree of paradise thou shalt eat: But of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat. For in what day soever thou shalt eat of it, thou shalt die the death.” (Ge 2:16-17.) That is why it is also called the Tree of Death, in contrast to the Tree of Life. We only learn about the nature of the Tree of Life when Man is being banished from the Garden:

And the Lord God made for Adam and his wife, garments of skins, and clothed them. And he said: Behold Adam is become as one of us, knowing good and evil: now, therefore, lest perhaps he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever. And the Lord God sent him out of the paradise of pleasure, to till the earth from which he was taken. And he cast out Adam; and placed before the paradise of pleasure Cherubims, and a flaming sword, turning every way, to keep the way of the tree of life.
(Ge 3:21-24.)

Eat of the Tree of Knowledge/Death and die; eat of the Tree of Life and live forever. The Church identified the Cross of the Crucifixion with the Tree of Life from the Garden. Christ’s sacrificial death atoned for Adam’s original sin and redeemed Man, making him eligible for eternal life. (See the sidebar on the economy of salvation in the previous post.) Consequently, many parallels were drawn between Adam and Christ, the Tree of Knowledge/Death in the Garden and the Tree of Life/Cross on Calvary, and also between Eve and Mary. A 15th-century Book of Hours expressed the connection by putting Christ and his metaphorical “Tree” of Life into the branches of the Tree of Knowledge. (Right.)

Saint Paul was the first to state the connection:

For by a man came death, and by a man the resurrection of the dead. And as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all shall be made alive. But every one in his own order: the firstfruits Christ, then they that are of Christ, who have believed in his coming. Afterwards the end, when he shall have delivered up the kingdom to God and the Father, when he shall have brought to nought all principality, and power, and virtue. For he must reign, until he hath put all his enemies under his feet. And the enemy death shall be destroyed last.
(Paul, 1 Co 15:21-26.)

In their central ritual, the sacramental Mass (Eucharist, Holy Communion, Lord’s Supper, etc.), they literally (via transubstantiation) eat the “fruit” of the Tree of Life, the body and blood of Christ. Christ instructed the Apostles:

And whilst they were at supper, Jesus took bread, and blessed, and broke: and gave to his disciples, and said: Take ye, and eat. This is my body. And taking the chalice, he gave thanks, and gave to them, saying: Drink ye all of this. For this is my blood of the new testament, which shall be shed for many unto remission of sins.
(Mt 26:26-28.)

This is so twisted that it might be tempting (pardon the pun) to think that Jesus was just messing with his disciples, playfully saying, “eat me, you twits.” That would be consistent with the Gnostic Jesus portrayed in the Gospel of Judas. That 3rd-century travesty of Jesus actively deceives his “disciples”, who are themselves literalistic stooges unable to discern his hidden teachings. (He reveals the truth only to Judas, ’cause... well, Gnostics love turning things upside-down and inside-out.) However, the canonical Jesus had no sense of humor that we know of, much less a sense of humor as surreal as that, and no sane person has taken the Last Supper account that way. It was all pretty literal, and Saint Albert the Great (d.1280) was clear and direct that the Body and Blood of Christ represent the Fruit of the Tree of Life.

“Do this in remembrance of me.” Two things should be noted here. The first is the command that we should use this sacrament, which is indicated when Jesus says, “Do this.” The second is that this sacrament commemorates the Lord’s going to death for our sake. This sacrament is profitable because it grants remission of sins; it is most useful because it bestows the fullness of grace on us in this life. “The Father of spirits instructs us in what is useful for our sanctification.” And his sanctification is in Christ’s sacrifice, that is, when he offers himself in this sacrament to the Father for our redemption to us for our use. Christ could not have commanded anything more beneficial, for this sacrament is the fruit of the tree of life. Anyone who receives this sacrament with the devotion of sincere faith will never taste death. “It is a tree of life for those who grasp it, and blessed is he who holds it fast. The man who feeds on me shall live on account of me.”
(Albert the Great, from a Commentary on Luke.)

Some pretty creepy cannibal/vampire shit there, but that’s Christian mythology for you. The upshot, again, is that Christ’s cross was identified with the Tree of Life from the Garden of Eden. The greatest illustration of this comes from the 15th-century Salzburg Missal.

Ann W. Astell’s 2006 book, Eating Beauty: The Eucharist and the Spiritual Arts of the Middle Ages, offers this description of the composition.

Visual artists, supported by patterns of biblical concordance, blended the iconography of the Tree of Life, the Tree of Jesse (depicting the genealogy of Jesus), the Tree of Virtues, and the Tree of the Cross. A colorful illustration, painted by Berthold Furtmeyr and found in the third volume of a five-volume missal (c.1481) commissioned by Bernhard von Rohr, Archbishop of Salzburg, vividly depicts both the juxtaposition and the coalescence of these arboreal images.
Entitled Eva und Maria, it shows a single, central tree, which can easily be identified as the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil by the serpent curled around its trunk. Eve, standing naked to the left of the tree, distributes its apples to sinners, who approach her, as it were, in a Communion line, at the end of which looms a skeletal Death-figure.
The same tree, however, doubles as the Tree of Life, for eucharistic Hosts flourish in its branches like white blossoms, intermingled with the fruit. A crucifix hangs on the right side of the tree, to associate the wood of the cross with the tree's branches and trunk. Christ's body on the cross parallels in its position a skull that appears opposite it, on the tree's left side. Taken together, the cross and skull signal the saving power of the Hosts and the mortifying effect of the apples.
Mary, dressed in blue and wearing a crown on her haloed head, distributes Hosts to a line of saintly communicants who approach her at the right side of the tree. Mary's action thus mirrors Eve's at the left. Adam sits, dazed, below the tree, the trunk of which arises phallic-like in front of his loins, to indicate his generation of two kinds of offspring, good and evil. Adam's naked body, symbolically joined to the tree trunk against which he rests his head and around which he reaches his arm, points to Jesus’ body above, stripped and nailed to the cross, and thus to Christ, the Son of Man, as a New Adam.
Adam’s apparent, apple-induced sleepiness recalls Christ’s death as a sleep before His resurrection, but also God's fashioning of Eve from a rib taken from Adam's size, while Adam slept. By extension Mary appears at Adam’s right as the new Eve, the sinless, bridal fruit of the New Adam's atoning sacrifice.
The iconography in this late-medieval illustration gives summary expression to a long-standing pattern of exegetical thought. Biblical commentators and theologians in the Augustinian tradition followed an artistic, formal impulse in their discovery of a wealth of symmetrical correspondences between and among these trees and their fruits.
(Ann W. Astell, pp.34-35.)

A related image, also German, is a broadside from about a quarter century later. The British Library describes the 1515 woodcut as an allegory of the Fall and Redemption of Mankind. In the center stand two trees, their trunks intertwined. The olive tree bears sacred wafers, the Host, and the apple tree bears fruit marked with skulls. Adam and Eve are standing on one side and the Virgin is standing on the other. An angel is picking “fruit”, the sacred Host, from the olive Tree of Life, for the Virgin to dispense, while the Serpent picks the apples for Eve. Each side has a group waiting, a communion line, to receive either a Host or an apple. Heading the two lines are a pope and an emperor, suggesting that the spiritual and secular estates of Man are saved and damned, respectively. More plausibly, the intent was to use the estates as proxies: Pope et al. symbolize the spiritual side of society which has devoted itself to God, while the emperor et al. stand for the secular side of society which is tempted by forbidden things. The emperor reaches for the wormy and deadly fruit but has not yet accepted it. (He may prefer a reichsapfel instead.)

So, that’s all pretty strange. But consider the challenge facing Christian apologists, from Saint Paul through the present day. The Old Testament said nothing about Jesus, his miraculous birth, his lawless, populist, and ecumenical moral teachings, his redemptive sacrifice and resurrection, this Pagan “eat me” shtick, etc. This was all new, and contrary to the teachings of orthodox Jews. Christians had to allegorize the shit out of the Hebrew Scriptures in order to claim Jesus as the Jewish Messiah. The Jewish tradition was that a divinely appointed Jewish king/messiah would destroy God’s Gentile enemies. He would restore the Temple in Jerusalem and reign over all nations as God’s regent. Jesus represented the antithesis of that narrative. Jesus was a Hellenistic Jewish preacher and itinerant faith healer who got himself killed, in the common and degrading manner of Roman executions, and not long after that (about four decades) Jerusalem and the Second Temple were destroyed. To pretend that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah, or to call the Cross the Tree of Life, is Orwellian.

Jesus was clearly not the Jewish Messiah, or Christ. He was the opposite, more of an anti-Christ, to coin a term. He led no armies, gained no victories, and enjoyed no reign. Rather than creating a glorious era of Jewish supremacy, the fortunes of the Jews went into decline. Even Saint Paul knew this was horseshit: “For the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom: But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumbling block, and unto the Greeks foolishness.” To rationalize these contradictions and present Jesus as the prophesied King of Kings required an allegorical merging of Jewish writings with Pagan themes of a dying god. This challenge resulted in the endless creation of “types”, often far-fetched parallels between people and events of the Old Testament and the New Testament. From Paul to the Fathers and Doctors of the Church these fictions were established. Works like the Biblia pauperum catalogued them. Primitive, magical belief in the existential import of correspondences made such allegorical figuration seem natural. This is the larger context for the Cross becoming the Tree of Life: Christians were manufacturing “signs” for the Jews and “wisdom” for the Gentiles.

Thousands of Roman Slaves Raised on the “Tree of Life”
#StumblingBlock  #Foolishness  #BullshitOnSteroids

§2. St. Bonaventure’s Lignum vitae

Moving on....

The Italian Saint Bonaventure (Bonaventura, 1221-1274) was a Franciscan, a contemporary of Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) and, like Thomas, a scholastic theologian and a Doctor of the Church. One of Bonaventure’s best known mystical/ascetic writings is the The Tree of Life (Lignum vitae), a series of forty-eight meditations on the life and death of Jesus. There are three main sections, each with sixteen meditations: 1) on Jesus’s birth and life, 2) on his passion and death, and 3) on Christ’s resurrection and glorification.

Bonaventure described a schematic tree to be used as a memory aid, in the manner of medieval ars memoria. The basic idea is to analyze and organize a complex subject in detail, and then associate each element of that outline with some physical representation. The physical structure can then be visualized and used to remind the practitioner of the outline, making the organization more memorable. Architectural structures, perhaps an estate with multiple buildings, each with varied wings, corridors, and rooms, are the most common organizational device. However, trees are almost as serviceable. Their structure includes main branches, secondary branches, twigs and leaves, a natural analog for a hierarchical outline.

In the specific case of Bonaventure’s Lignum vitae, the subject was the life of Christ and the tree was therefore both a memory structure and a typological connection with the Tree of Life from the Garden of Eden. As discussed above, eat the fruit of the tree to gain eternal life. Bonaventure wrote that the tree of knowledge from the Garden of Eden was bought to life again by Christ’s blood, and so on. Manuscripts of Bonaventure’s text often included full-page illustrations. Some were more pictorial, while others were more purely diagrammatic, but all were schematic summaries or outlines, suitable for both mnemonic and meditational use. The manuscriptBeinecke MS 416 is a late thirteenth-century or early fourteenth-century collection of such didactic diagrams from the Cistercian abbey of Kamp in western Germany.” Below is a brief description of the Tree of Life schematic from that manuscript. (Here is a translation of the Tree.)

This diagram presents the events of Christ’s life along with scriptural citations and prompts for meditation in the form of a tree. The diagram was inspired by St. Bonaventure's Lignum vitae, a thirteenth-century text meant to aid the devout in conforming themselves to Christ through meditation on the events of his life, passion, and glorification. The diagrammatic tree has twelve branches and twelve fruits, each presenting a different mystery from the life of Christ. Beneath the tree are two rows of verses from both the Old and New Testaments. One row features tree imagery, while the other contains passages alluding to Christ's death. A verse from Revelation serves as the root of the tree itself, suggesting a link between the Edenic tree in Genesis and the cross of the Gospels. The designer of the diagram also linked the events of Christ’s life inscribed on tree itself with Old Testament verses prefiguring them. These latter are found in the lobes on the margins. In pairing the events of Christ’s career with their Old Testament prefigurations, the designer of the diagram went a step beyond St. Bonaventure, who did not have a broader exegetical program in mind when he composed his text. The Tree of Life as it appears in Beinecke MS 416 concretely depicts the essential unity of the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian Gospels, illustrating how ancient prophecies have become the fruit of the new dispensation.

There are numerous surviving examples of such trees. These three examples are from manuscripts in the British Library: De Lisle Psalter, Arundel MS 83, folio 125v; Theological miscellany, Harley 5234, folio 5; Howard Psalter, Arundel MS 83, folio 13r. These are essentially illuminated outlines.

The tree with twelve branches became a conventional attribute of Saint Bonaventure.

And a few more, just to illustrate the variety of designs stemming (pardon the pun) from Bonaventure’s Tree. Notice at the base of the first tree below (Pacino di Bonaguida, 1310-1315) we again find the Creation, Temptation, Fall, and Expulsion cycle, tying this tree directly to the Garden of Eden. At the base of the second tree below (Taddeo Gaddi, c.1340) we see the Last Supper, tying the tree directly to the “eat me” admonition of Jesus. The third tree is a more modest design by Giovanni di Corraduccio (c.1430s). The prominence of Jesus and the skull at the foot of the tree, a conventional attribute of the Crucifixion, keeps the focus on Christ’s death, although the twelve branches make the Tree of Life motif equally striking.

§3. Modern Tree of Life Prints

Here is another different yet related tradition. These prints from the British Museum show modern Tree of Life allegories, with 18th-century Methodist preachers John Wesley (1703-1791) and George Whitefield (1714-1770) and the lesson of the wide and narrow gates. “Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat: Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.” (Mt 7:13-14.) Obviously, the two gates permit a direct comparison with the two trees in the Garden, one leading to life and the other to death. “The Choice” motif, allegorically between Virtue and Vice, is the basis of virtually all moral allegories. Sometimes it takes the form of a choice between two trees, sometimes two gates, or two paths, or even between two women.

In this case, however, there is only the one tree and its meaning is not dual as in some examples above. Christ is on the tree and the fruits are virtues. Grace and works are thus both suggested, but it is only a Tree of Life, not Knowledge/Death. A street scene leads either to a medieval Hellmouth (with Devil inside and Death/skull above) or through a narrow gate to Heavenly Jerusalem in the background, past the Tree of Life.

The first print is from 1804, and it references Revelation about the tree of life bearing 12 crops, fruit every month, and the leaves healing the nations. The second is a later version, circa 1825, of the same design, but in a broadside with more explanatory text. The third is an earlier example of the same design, from the late 17th century, also telling the Two Paths tale. Three versions from about a half century, but all telling essentially the same message. Most of the trees in this tradition have 12 fruits, and the trees are still labeled with specific allegorical identifications as well as their biblical associations.

Currier and Ives produced a number of Christian “tree” images which were more generic than the explicitly Methodist prints above. These can be found at the British Museum site, Library of Congress site, Springfield Museums site which has a Courier and Ives collection, and so on. Some of these get us back to the blatantly allegorical figures with Death and the Devil brandishing axes and a watering can, while an angel waters the Tree of Life.

And so on.

§4. Sir Not Appearing in This Post (2)

As already pointed out, we are looking for allegorical trees which include some of the main themes of Tarot. The previous post focused on the Tree of Knowledge/Death, which obviously qualifies when accompanied by Death personified. However, although the Devil, Death, and Fall/Expulsion do make some appearances, many of the items in this post were included primarily because they elaborate the other tree from the Garden, and show how the Tree of Life continued to be associated with the Christ and the Cross to this day. This is implicit and essential context for the more overtly allegorical trees, and it also emphasizes the fact that biblical mythology and so-called “secular” allegory were not distinct.

However, there are many other traditions of symbolic or schematic trees which are even less directly relevant but were also extremely common. They merit a nod in their direction. (Wink wink, nudge nudge.) The medieval tradition of using trees as a framework began, like our previous post, with the two trees in the Garden of Eden. The parallels with the Cross were a natural outgrowth of that. The Tree of Jesse, from Isaiah, became a metaphor for the genealogy of Jesus from the royal house of David, an aristocratic line of the great Jewish kings. The Tree of Jesse was a family tree of nobles, albeit a special one. There were countless illustrations of that tree, including famous stained glass windows from mid 12th century, and many manuscript versions. There were also traditional family tree illustrations in which a noble lineage was displayed, or the genealogy of a legendary character, or perhaps even a noble family traced back to Greco-Roman gods. Trees with heraldry were also popular. Examples are many, and not relevant here.

More abstract trees, as visual mnemonic aids, were also common. In the realm of logical taxonomy and Aristotle's categories, we have the Porphyrian tree. In the realm of ethics the most famous trees were those of virtues and vices, as spelled out by Hugh of St. Victor (c.1096-1141), De fructibus carnis et spiritus. “It is good to represent the fruits of Humility and Pride as a kind of visual image so that anyone studying to improve himself can clearly see what things will result from them. Therefore we show the novices and untutored men two little trees, differing in fruits and in size, each displaying the characteristics of virtues and vices, so that people may understand the products of each and choose which of the trees they would establish in themselves.”(3) Thus, “an arbor vitiorum of the old Adam, rooted in Superbia and crowned by Luxuria” was contrasted with “an arbor virtutum of the new Adam, rooted in Humilitas and crowned by Charitas.”(4) Examples are many, and not relevant here except as one more instance of how pervasive and profound the theme of virtues and vices was.

The use of trees as mnemonic structures took many forms. Some authors, or their followers, were particularly fond of diagrammatic illustrations. Joachim of Fiore and Ramon Lull, for example, are famous in part because of the striking illustrations associated with their writings. The Qabalistic Tree of Life is another well known tree diagram, although like many others it bears limited resemblance to an actual tree. Again, examples are many, and not relevant here.

Trees as schematic diagrams have become a hot topic. There have been books and web pages devoted to them, and to other medieval organizational graphics, as forerunners of today’s infographics. Manuel Lima wrote a 2011 book (Visual Complexity: Mapping Patterns of Information) on such things and then last year wrote another: The Book of Trees: Visualizing Branches of Knowledge. If that sort of thing interests you, his books are a good starting point. Here is a family tree for Mankind, from the 19th century, and a more recent family (phylogenetic) tree for all (extant) life on Earth. Such examples are many, and not relevant here.

Tree of Life
As Mapped in September, 2015; 2.3 Million Species

That’s it for the Tree of Life – next post, more trees with Death and the Devil. And yes, there will be a bit more of a Tarot connection.


 ✎ 1. The Adam de Hautot Death card was added 11/27/15, to illustrate the reader comment below.
 ✎ 2. Cf. Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
 ✎ 3. Hugh of St Victor, De fructibus carnis et spiritus, quoted in Medieval Monastic Education, p.122.
 ✎ 4. Reeves, Marjorie. “The "arbores" of Joachim of Fiore”. Papers of the British School at Rome 24 (1956): 124–136.


  1. A few years ago, Bertrand posted images from the Adam de Hautot Tarot de Rouen on the Tarot History forum, including an image of Death facing either a large flower or a shrub or small tree. The image is no longer hosted on the forum but is viewable through Google image search (try the key words listed above). It seems congruent with what you posted in the first paragraph.