By Ioannis Tzortzakakis

24 December is the day of The Vigil of the Nativity; a celebration of Christianity commemorating the anticipation of the Birth of Jesus Christ.

Today you will know that the Lord will come, and he will save us, / and in the morning you will see his glory. (Entrance antiphon)

Tomorrow the wickedness of the earth will be destroyed: / the Savior of the world will reign over us. (Alleluia)

Above there are two quotes from the readings for the Vigil of the Nativity. The Vigil Mass at Christmas Eve is based on Matthew’s narration of the genealogy of Jesus Christ (Matthew, 1:18-25).

[….] Abraham became the father of Isaac, Isaac the father of Jacob, Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers. [….] 

In art, scenes depicting the ancestors of Christ are known as The Tree or the Root of Jesse; a theme flourishing in the Medieval period. Jesse is described in the Book of Isaiah (11: 1–2) as the root of a great tree, an ancestor of Jesus Christ.

 And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots: And the spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him.

Its iconography is largely composed by the reclining figure of Jesse at the bottom of the pictorial space, while a (vine) tree ascending from him and branching to either side. In its branches, there are the figures of the ancestors of Christ.

Further reading

Arthur Watson (1934) The Early Iconography of the Tree of Jesse, London: Oxford University Press, Humphrey Milford.

Pippa Salonius and Andrea Worm (Eds) (2014) The Tree – Symbol, Allegory, and Mnemonic Device in Medieval Art and Thought, Brepols Publishers.


Cristoforo Majorana, The Tree of Jesse, (Leaf from Psalter, Walters 33014V), c. 1480 The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore.

Giovanni da Fiesole, The Tree of Jesse (from the Armadio degli argenti), 1451-1453, Museo nazionale di San Marco di Firenze.

Bianchini brothers, Tree of Jesse, c. 1540s, mosaic, Basilica San Marco, Venice.

Possibly by Girolamo Genga, A Jesse-Tree, c. 1535, The National Gallery, London.

Lorenzo Maitani, Tree of Jesse, Orvieto Cathedral (Duomo).

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