Home Introduction Jesus Mary Apostles Saints Spiritual Themes Genesis Moses Deuteronomic History Educating Arte Full new Screen

The Tree of Life

The Tree of Saint Anne

Gheeraert David (1460-1523). Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon – Lyon. Around 1490.

The ‘Tree of Jesse’, ‘Tree of Anne’ or ‘Tree of Life’ paintings represented genealogies. The tree of Jesse was the genealogical tree of the descendence of Jesse, the father of David, which led to Jesus. The representation of this descendence as a tree stems from an image in the prophecies of Isaiah. Isaiah told: ‘A shoot will spring from the stock of Jesse, a new shoot will grow from its roots.’ And further, ‘The root of Jesse, standing as a signal for the peoples, will be sought out by the nations and its home will be glorious.’ G38 These words were the occasion for the theme of the ‘Tree of Life’ and thus of the representation of genealogies.

The tree of Saint Anne represented the offspring of Anne, the mother of the Virgin Mary. According to the ‘Golden Legend’ Anne had married three times, so that she had a large family. These genealogies all arrived at Jesus as the most famous offshoot, so these pictures can be considered in general as genealogies of Jesus. In analogy to these trees the images were used also to represent families of saints since the saints were spiritually born out of Christ. The imagery of the genealogy by drawing a tree is thus a very early symbol, popular as well in the northern countries, in Flanders and Germany, and in Italy.

Taddeo Gaddi made a particularly impressive fresco on the large wall of the refectory of Santa Croce in Florence. In the enormous painting he used the ‘Tree of Life’ as the middle piece of several scenes, which include a majestic long predella-kind ‘Last Supper’, and four panels of scenes of the lives of saints. Out of the crucifix of Jesus grow apostles, missionaries and saints that were truly the spiritual offspring of Christ.

From around 1300 dates another ‘Tree of Life’ made by Pacino di Buonaguida, a panel now in the Galleria del’ Accademia of Florence, which represents like Taddeo Gaddi’s fresco the crucified Jesus. But out of the crucifix grow branches representing scenes of the life and passion of Christ.

Gheeraert David was a painter of Dutch origin, born in Oudewater close to Gouda around 1455. He worked in Renaissance Bruges and died there in 1523. David continued the tradition of the Flemish Primitives of Bruges, but he was also inscribed in the guild of painters of Antwerp. He made some very inspiring and surprising pictures of the Madonna and he could also fill the backgrounds of his pictures with marvellous landscapes in the tradition of Van Eyck. He was a gifted artist belonging to a transition period in the art of Bruges and Flanders.

David made a ‘Tree of Saint Anne’ that shows the three generations of Christianity in the same image as Masolino and Masaccio’s ‘Sant’ Anna Metterza’.
Saint Anne is seated on a throne with the Virgin Mary at her feet. Mary holds her child Jesus. The representations of the three generations, although a theme of the thirteenth century and before, thus continued to be used by painters until the sixteenth century. Symbols are also used in this painting, in the best Flemish tradition. Thus Anne has the book of wisdom, out of which she taught Mary, open on her knee and Jesus plays with a rosary in his fingers, a sign of his passion. Two donators and two other figures flank the throne, whereas out of Anne then grows the tree of her genealogy, which ultimately leads at the top again to the Virgin Mary and Jesus. The tree is in bloom and Anne’s descendence is shown as growing out of the flowers. The tree with unreal green, spiky leaves and the rose flowers is set against a background of gold. The picture was certainly used for teaching reasons, to illustrate the genealogy and family of Saint Anne as explained in the ‘Golden Legend’.

Gheeraert David knew the paintings of Jan Van Eyck so we can find various references to the pictures of Van Eyck in David’s panel. Thus the throne bears woodcarvings as van Eyck loved to draw and the throne and carpet under it are similar to paintings of Van Eyck. The saint of the left wears the brocaded robe with the word ‘Adonai’, which was also used in van Eyck’s ‘Adoration of the Lamb’.

Anne’s family is detailed in the ‘Golden Legend’.

Joachim was the first husband of Anne. So David pictured him directly above Anne. This marriage gave one child, the Virgin Mary, painted at the top of the picture. The Virgin is flanked to the right by her husband Joseph, the human father of Jesus. At her left is God the Father, the spiritual father of Jesus.

When Anne’s husband Joachim died, she married again to Cleophas. Cleophas is painted at the extreme left, at the same height as Joachim. From this marriage Anne had another daughter called Mary. This Mary is painted also on the left top branch, next to her sister the Virgin Mary. Mary of Cleophas married Alpheus. Gheeraert David painted Alpheus next to Mary of Cleophas. The couple’s hands almost touch. This couple had several children: the apostle James the Lesser, Joseph the Just also called Barsabas, Simon and Jude. All these are portrayed in the lower left circle. Simon and Jude are probably the two lower figures holding swords because they were both martyred in Persia. Simon was killed by a falchion and Jude by a club but David may have pictured Jude simply as the younger man, and with a curved sword of Persia.

Anne married a third time, now to Salome. Salome is situated in the painting to the right of Joachim so that the three husbands of Anne occupy the same middle level of the tree. Again Anne had a daughter called Mary. Mary Salome and her husband Zebedee are in the right circle above Salome. Thus, the Virgin is flanked by her two sisters, and all are called Mary. From the marriage of Mary Salome and Zebedee sprang the apostles John the Evangelist, easily recognisable in the picture because he holds his poisonous cup, and James the Great.

Furthermore, Anne had a sister, Hismeria. Hismeria was mother to Eliud and Elisabeth. This Elisabeth married Zachary. She gave birth to John the Baptist. Eliud was the father of Eminen according to the ‘Golden Legend’, and Eminen father of Saint Servatius. Since these were no direct descendence of Anne, they are not in the picture.

In May of 2011, Dr. Peter Ackermann (Bodenheim, Germany) saw a tapestry in the sacristy of the Saint Crucis Church of Erfurt, a tapestry that dated probably from the late fifteenth or early sixteenth century, and which was almost a replica of David’s painting, which in its turn is supposed to have been produced after an even earlier drawing. Near the figure on the lower left one can read on this tapestry the name of Aaron, the Levite, the brother of Moses and Moses’s mouthpiece, Aaron the priest. The figure on the lower right, the figure with the harp, is King David. The tapestry shows how fast pictures were used for several media in the sixteenth century and earlier.

The ‘Golden Legend’ emphasizes the descent of Joseph and Mary from the line of David, so this figure is at his place in the painting. The painting is a religious image, so the priest Aaron indicates the religious theme. Gheeraert David was without doubt a Christian. His many and totally Roman Catholic paintings testify to that, as well as his status in Bruges, but names given in the Middle Ages have a meaning, and Gheeraert David may have had people of the Jewish faith in his forefathers. The presentation of King David in the picture may refer thus also to who made it, to Gheeraert David, and Gheeraert may have wondered whether he too might have descended from the early King David.

Pictures such as these have more art historical than aesthetic value, even though the scene is harmonious and well painted with all the skills of a master artisan as Gheeraert David.
Particularly interesting of course is that the idea of the tree of genealogy is still used by many families today. This representation thus goes very far back into medieval times.

Other paintings:

Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: June 2011
Book Next Previous

Copyright: René Dewil - All rights reserved. The electronic form of this document is copyright. Permission is granted for electronic copying, distribution in print form for educational purposes and personal use. If you do reduplicate the document, indicate the source as 'René Dewil - The Art of Painting - Copyright'. No permission is granted for commercial use and if you would like to reproduce this work for commercial purposes in all or in part, in any form, as in selling it as a book or published compilation, then you must ask for my permission formally and separately.