Q. What is the origin of the popular “Jesse Tree” custom for Advent?
A. The Jesse Tree custom typically involves placing ornaments, throughout the days of Advent, on a tree or the figure of a tree, each of which points to a biblical ancestor of Our Lord Jesus. It is based on the age-old artistic depiction called “The Tree of Jesse,” which itself derives from a prophecy of Isaiah: “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots” (1:11).
Jesse was the father of King David in the Old Testament. From ancient times, Christians have interpreted this statement (and the longer biblical passage that it introduces) as a prophecy of the coming of Jesus Christ, the Messiah and King, because the Gospel genealogies of Jesus (Matthew 1:1–17; Luke 3:23–38) show that Our Lord was in the royal line of David. So He was a descendant of Jesse as well (Luke 3:32). The Tree of Jesse is thus a pictorial genealogy of Christ. In fact, today’s popular custom of illustrating genealogies as “family trees” derives from the Tree of Jesse. In the Medieval period, noble families imitated this sacred artistic tradition to depict their own lineage as branches of a tree, and in time, the practice passed into common usage.
The earliest known depiction of the Tree of Jesse in Christian art is nearly a thousand years old, found in an illustrated manuscript of the Gospels that dates from the year 1086 in Bohemia. In the centuries following, variations on this theme appeared not only in illustrated manuscripts, but also in stained glass, wood carvings, stone friezes, mosaics, paintings, floor tiles, funerary monuments, and embroidery.
Sacred poetry and music also reflect the tradition, as in the well-known Advent hymn “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming” (“Of Jesse’s lineage coming.”). The Tree of Jesse image varies considerably. Often, Jesse is depicted reclining at the base of the figure, with a stem or vine rising out of his side. Then branches appear above him, with images of various biblical characters who are his descendants, surrounded by foliage. Kings David and Solomon are usually included, a reminder that we are seeing a royal lineage. At the top of the tree appear Mary and Jesus. Our Lord’s head is often encircled by seven doves with outspread wings. The Tree of Jesse motif is found in the art and architecture of some of the world’s most famous churches, such as the Cathedrals of Chartres in France, Santiago de Compostela in Spain, Canterbury (now Anglican) in England, and St. Mark’s Basilica in Italy.