27 May 2010

The Tree of Jesse

In Christian iconology, the "tree of Jesse" refers to Isaiah 11:1, and the imagery it inspired.

The pertinent text (KJV) says: "And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots".

In the Latin Vulgate, the passage reads: "Et egredietur virga de radice Iesse et flos de radice eius ascendet," so we see that a Latin term for a tender green shoot, "virga," [with the near-pun, obvious enough to western Europe for centuries before King James' day, to "virgo" or "Virgin"] became the sturdier-seeming "rod" in English.

But I'm thinking just now of the window in Chartres Cathedral in which a tree rises from a sleeping Jesse, and the rod, the trunk of the tree, consists of figures of David, Solomon, then two other crowned but uncertain referents, then Mary and at the tree's peak -- Jesus.

The 19th century French architect and theorist, Viollet-le-Duc, rhapsodized about this window, as an achievement in color. Then he turned to the issue of perspective -- not something, in his opinion, that can possibly enter into the particular form of art that produced this window.

"The radiation of translucent colors in windows cannot be modified by the artist; all his talent consists in profiting by it, according to a given harmonic scheme on a single plane, like a rug, but not according to an effort at aerial perspective. Do what you like, a glass window never does and never can represent anything but a plane surface; its real virtues even exist only on that condition. Every attempt to present several planes to the eye is fatal to the harmony of color, without producing any illusion in the spectator."

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