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The Virgin of the Dry Tree

The Virgin of the Dry Tree

Petrus Christus (ca. 1410 – 1472/1473). The Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection, the Villahermosa Palace – Madrid. Ca. 1460.

The Madonna of the Dry Tree of Petrus Christus is a strange image. A Madonna is standing amidst a thorn bush. She is dressed in a long Gothic red cloak with green lining and in a blue robe, and she holds the infant Jesus in her right arm. The thorn bush grows all around the Virgin and in it hang fifteen letters ‘a’. This is an alien image, which has been almost never painted in such iconography but in this Petrus Christus picture. It is a picture heavy with symbolism of course, as liked by the painters and viewers of the Late Middle Ages in Northern Europe.

The dry thorny tree may have several meanings. The tree could prefigure Jesus’s Passion and his crown of thorns. The image could be almost a classical Eleusa theme in which the Virgin stands, holds Jesus and ponders at His Passion. The theme then also joins the ‘Our Lady of Sorrows’ paintings. A tree without leaves was a symbol of infertility. So, the symbolism of the Dry Tree could also mean the Immaculate Conception of Mary since she conceived Jesus and only him out of a womb remained otherwise barren but for the miraculous conception. And the tree may be a reference to the own birth of the Virgin from her mother Anne. The Virgin Mary was conceived after Anne had become infertile, in a miracle conception announced to Mary’s father Joachim. The tree may also signify a reference to phrases of the prophet Ezekiel P2 :

I, Yahweh, am the one
Who lays the tall tree low
and raises the low tree high,
who makes the green tree wither
and makes the withered tree bear fruit G38 .

The thorns can also signify the sins over which Mary and Jesus will triumph by Jesus’s Resurrection.

The fifteen letters ‘a’ hanging from the thorns are fifteen symbols for ‘Ave Maria’ or the Hail Mary prayers of the Rosary, the basic prayer to Mary and the words Elisabeth spoke to her during the Visitation scene.

Petrus Christus made a striking, very unusual picture. He painted a dark background to present a menacing environment out of which Mary seems to appear in fiery colours. The thorns form a traditional mandorla shape around the holy figure, but whereas the mandorla was usually a halo of light, Petrus Christus made the almond shape more menacing even than the background.

The Virgin’s love and protection for her child will win over all dangers however dark and cruel, but she seems temporarily the prisoner of evil incarnated in the thorns.

A faint light comes from the left and we must admire the marvellous skill by which Petrus Christus made the thorn bush be shaped by that light and by that light alone. This was a very unusual way also to depict figures, especially for early Flemish Primitive painters of the fifteenth century since these painters generally brought the Virgin and Jesus and all their devotional pictures under an all-pervading bright light that symbolised the divine light of the heavens. Petrus Christus offered a rare night scene and prefigured strongly the contrasted dark-light visions of the painters of the Baroque period of a century later. Remark how the light plays on the Virgin and child, how it works on Mary’s red and green cloak. Green had to be brought into the picture to contrast with the barren tree, realising the words of Ezekiel.

Mary’s cloak is wonderfully depicted in all details of folds, showing the technical skill of painting of Petrus Christus. The folds also give a lively impression to an otherwise fixed image that was also rare in pictures of the Virgin of those times. The baby Jesus enhances the liveliness further since he seems to struggle out of Mary’s arms, wanting to go into the world on his own. Jesus is oblivious of the seriousness of the theme. Here too, Petrus Christus somewhat evolved tradition since he painted the Virgin holding Jesus in her right arm, with her left hand gently playing or holding Jesus’s toes. But as we will see, Petrus Christus merely took an earlier image of Jan Van Eyck for his own painting. The face of the Virgin is dignified, aware of the mystery of her conception and of the importance of her son and unafraid. This is not a subdued Mary lost in sorrows, but a triumphant and confident mother who sees the dangers and the cruel menace but who chooses to ignore the fate because of her motherly love.

Petrus Christus came from Northern Brabant, so he was not Flemish, but he worked most of his life in Bruges where he must have been the most important artist of his years. He may have been a pupil of Jan Van Eyck and he certainly borrowed many style elements from this painter. Little is known of his life. He spanned the period of arts production in Bruges between Van Eyck’s death around 1440 and Hans Memling’s venue around 1470. Petrus Christus was no innovator like the Van Eycks and did not have the vision to paint nature as marvellously or to paint his figures as graciously.

We have a painting of Jan Van Eyck showing a standing Madonna inside a church (now in the Staatliche Museen Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Gemäldegalerie Berlin) in practically the same pose as Petrus Christus’ picture. But one look shows the far greater realism, grace, elegance and power of this painting as compared to Petrus Christus’ image. Petrus Christus’ Virgin and child seem weak and faint compared to Jan Van Eyck’s art. The painter seemingly took Jan Van Eyck’s Madonna and simply positioned her inside a thorn bush. He dedicated less time to the detail than Van Eyck did. We cannot but regret in Petrus Christus the lack of power, of eye for nature and of intricate detail that were however the characteristics of the Flemish Primitives. Still, the way this painter handled the light falling on the Dry Tree and thereby shaping it, as well as some of the details of the Virgin prove the strong artisan skills of this artist. Petrus Christus moreover made wonderful portraits.

We suppose Petrus Christus painted with the ‘Virgin of the Dry Tree’ only a quick picture for the Bruges Brotherhood of Our Lady of the Dry Tree, of which he was a member P2 , getting the admiration of his fellow members from the new view he showed. Petrus Christus’ image thus remains valuable as an example of the many strange manifestations of devotion to Mary in the Northern painting of the Late Middle Ages.

Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
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