The cover of the month

Our God is a God of salvation! (Ps 68:20) by Pierre-Marie Dumont

The Jesse tree is a symbolic figure that appeared in the late 11th century in manuscripts illustrated with miniatures. It was then picked up in stained glass windows and even in sculpture. Contrary to appearances, this is not a genealogical tree of Jesus, even though artists were inspired to some extent by the genealogy that opens the Gospel according to Saint Matthew; eventually the Jesse tree lost its initial purpose and often served as a frontispiece for manuscripts of the first Gospel, and therefore of Gospel Books. Be that as it may, the Jesse tree essentially remains a message that shows the fulfillment of the Scriptures, according to the prophet Isaiah (Is 11:1-2a, 10; 12:2-4): 

There shall come forth a shoot 
    from the stump of Jesse [the father of David],
And a branch shall grow out of his roots. 
And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him....

In that day the root of Jesse shall stand 
    as an ensign to the peoples; 
Him shall the nations seek, 
And his dwellings shall be glorious…. 

Behold, God is my salvation; I will trust, 
    and will not be afraid; 
For the Lord God is my strength and my song, 
    and he has become my salvation. 
With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.

And you will say in that day: “Give thanks to the Lord,
Call upon his name; make known his deeds 
    among the nations, 
Proclaim that his name is exalted!” 

So it is with the 16th-century miniature that illuminates the cover of this issue of Magnificat: the tree that springs from the root of Jesse does not lead genealogically to the Infant Jesus through Joseph, a descendant of David—the husband of Mary—as Saint Matthew reports, but rather, by playing on the Latin words virga (twig) and Virgo (Virgin), this image shows us that the shoot of Jesse blossoms at the very top with the promised flower, Mary, who gives to world her fruit, Jesus. 

Let us adore this child, the naked King

Before the Virgin with the Child, twelve kings of Israel have bloomed on the shoot of Jesse, in the first place David, although he cannot be recognized here by his traditional attribute, the lyre. The number twelve is purely conventional: it is the sublime number par excellence, because the number itself and the sum of its factors are both perfect numbers. It is the number of the chosen people, made up of twelve tribes. Later it would be the conventional number of the elect in the Book of Revelation (12 x 12 = 144 x 1,000, which signifies the multitude = 144,000). Here the twelve kings stand for all who led Israel—priests, prophets, and kings—until the fullness of time. They prefigure also the twelve apostles who would lead the Church throughout its long pilgrimage on earth. 

And so, just as Jesse the shepherd at the root of the tree testifies that the Child of the Virgin Mary is indeed the Good Shepherd prophesied by Isaiah, the twelve kings who sprang from its sap testify that the Child Jesus, in a way surpassing all hope, would embody and accomplish the vocation of the Israelite royalty by extending it to all the nations, to the whole universe, and as far as God’s right hand. In this sense, the last Sunday of the liturgical year celebrates Christ as King of the universe. 

Come, then, let us adore this Child, the naked King, stripped of all human power. And yet, impatient to be about the business of his Father who is in heaven and to do his will, he turns toward the king at his right, so as to take from his hands the scroll (sefer) of the Torah—here the Law and the Prophets—which he is called to fulfill. However, the king at his left reverently presents to him the attributes that will belong to the Salvator Mundi [Savior of the World]: the globe that symbolizes creation, and over it the cross that signifies the price of its redemption.

The Jesse Tree (c. 1535), Gerolamo Genga (1476-1551), National Gallery, London, UK. © Heritage Images / Fine Art Images / akg-images.