“There shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.”
Both genealogies, regardless of the “ascending” or “descending” direction they choose, present Jesus as belonging to the lineage of David, son of Jesse. In fact, this is what allows them to understand Jesus’ birth as being aligned with the prophecy found in the book of Isaiah (Cf. Is. 11:1) in which we read “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.”
This vegetal metaphor the prophet himself used, then, was then taken by medieval artists to represent Jesus’ genealogy in a relatively easy way. Even more, the Latin translation of this passage allowed the artists to add some other characters to the tree. In the Latin Vulgate, the passage reads as follows:
“Et egredietur virga de radice Iesse et flos de radice eius ascendet”
Whereas flos means “flower,” virga means “twig,” or “rod.” But it’s also a pretty convenient pun: it is close enough to virgo (that is, Latin for “virgin”). In that sense, it is only natural that the Tree of Jesse (Jesse’s “virga”) ends up with the Virgin Mary crowning the tree, holding Jesus in her arms.
Most of the images of the Tree of Jesse show the figure of Jesse, (often larger than everybody else in the image) either reclined or sleeping, resembling Adam when his rib was taken. Either from his side or from his navel the ascending trunk of a tree (sometimes it’s a vine) branches out to either side. The ancestors of Christ are often seen in these branches. The trunk, finally, ascends vertically to Mary and Christ at the top. Our common use of “family trees,” not surprisingly, derives from this medieval motif.
Since you are here…
…we’d like to have one more word with you. We are excited to report that Aleteia’s readership is growing at a rapid rate, world-wide! Our team proves its mission every day by providing high-quality content that informs and inspires a Christian life. But quality journalism has a cost and it’s more than ads can cover. We want our articles to be accessible to everyone, free of charge, but we need your help. To continue our efforts to nourish and inspire our Catholic family, your support is invaluable. Become an Aleteia Patron today for as little as $3 a month. May we count on you?