tot Sint Jans, Geertgen: The Tree of Jesse (c1490)

You can (if you're family-minded) make a family tree " a diagram of mothers and fathers, and their children, and their spouses, and their children, and so on, down the generations. Down is the operative word. The odd thing about these trees is that they grow downwards. They spread out like roots. They hang like mobiles.

We may call them trees, and talk about families in burgeoning vegetable terms (seeds, branches, scions etc). But in these diagrams, the metaphor of descent overrides the metaphor of growth. The ancestors sit above their descendants. Things are handed down from generation to generation. What is earlier, is higher. What comes after, comes below. Our reading and writing habits are no doubt responsible for this particular space-time equation, and beyond that gravity itself.

But some family trees can't go in a downward direction. Higher may mean earlier, but it means superior too. The genealogy of Jesus Christ is a case in point. It has to culminate with Jesus at the top of the tree.

Jesus is the Son of God, by the Virgin Mary, and no better pedigree could be required. But his human ancestry has also been important in Christian belief. 'And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots: and the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him': so says the Old Testament book of Isaiah, and the words were taken as a prophecy. The messiah is a linear descendant of the Jewish patriarch Jesse.

To prove it, the Christian gospel-writers provided long genealogical name lists. 'And Jesse begat David the king, and David the king begat Solomon... And Solomon begat Roboam; and Roboam begat Abiah; and Abiah begat Asa; and Asa begat Josaphat; and Josaphat begat Joram; and Joram begat...' till you eventually get to Jesus, via his human stepfather, Joseph.

In stained-glass windows, in illuminated manuscripts, this line of descent is often pictured as a tree " a proper rising tree, the Jesse Tree. The images show old Jesse lying at the bottom, with a stem growing from under his cloak, vaguely from the genital area, and rising up and ramifying. Figures representing the ancestors of Jesus are set among its branches. Mary and Jesus sit at the top of the tree. These images are basically diagrams. Everything is clearly laid out.

Not so in The Tree of Jesse by Geertgen tot Sint Jans. At first sight, the scene is almost unreadable. You have an upright image, full of people, but you can hardly grasp what's pictured. The people seem to be arranged in a tower; most of them are in the top half of the picture; there doesn't seem to be anything holding them up, nor do their postures suggest people who are hovering. You just have a suspended mass of richly costumed bodies, with glimpses of buildings peeping out among them. You may suspect that the picture doesn't really work at all. It's as if several different images were mixed up together.

Actually, the scene is perfectly realistic. It shows solid bodies occupying three-dimensional space, and it keeps strictly to its realist rules. The content may be symbolic, but nothing physically impossible, nothing miraculous, nothing visionary is depicted here. When you look more patiently, you can sort out what the picture shows and see that it makes sense. So why is it so baffling at first sight? Why, every time you look at it, is it baffling again?

Jesse lies asleep in a garden courtyard. Two prophets stand on the ground next to him, plus a kneeling woman (the picture's commissioner). A tree trunk grows up vertically from inside Jesse's cloaked loins, and expands into something roughly the size of a big apple tree. Perched and clambering around its branches, like a gang of tree-climbing children, there are a dozen fancily dressed figures. These are the ancestors of Jesus (or a representative sample). They are arranged in an S-shaped queue, which leads from Jesse up to Mary and Jesus and two angels at the top.

That may be clear. But the problem in this Jesse Tree is with the tree itself " the tree that's supposed to sustain this rising human formation. You can't see the tree for the folk. The ancestors are not nicely spaced out around its branches. They sit together in such a heavy throng, they obscure the structure that holds them up. What you see is a gathering in the air, solid bodies that are unsupported though apparently seated.

Faced with this bizarrerie, you try to make sense of it. You try to find something that will underpin these figures. The most plausible supports available are the bits of building, the wall and steps that appear behind them. And in fact this connection partly works. There are points where the figures could almost be sitting or standing on the stone ledges in the background. But then at other points the connection fails. Things become more confusing.

So what the image offers is a choice of disorientations. You can see the group of figures as sedately and impossibly defying gravity. Or you can try to make them sit on the stone ledges behind them, generating an unstable spatial slippage between near and far. What you can never do is keep your attention fixed on what the image really does depict " a perfectly well-oriented scene, a bunch of people sitting in a tree.

Yet what makes Geertgen's image so delightful, to our eyes at least, is precisely that we can't quite get a grip on its dense, multicoloured, weightless, jumpy confusion of bodies and space. The scene is lost in decorative effect. It has a festive spirit " and that may not be wholly unintended. The birth of Jesus is its subject, after all. And some people believe that the 'stem of Jesse', hung with figures, and with angels on the top, is the origin of our Christmas tree.


Very little is known about Geertgen tot Sint Jans (roughly 1460- 90). Early Netherlandish " or, as they used to say, Dutch Primitive; his name means Little Gerard of the Confraternity of St John. No likeness exists. (Was he little?) No stories are told. His life is presumed short. He is his art, but his art is mostly guesswork. It's a small body of work, always with Christian subjects. It consists of one documented altarpiece, with the rest, including The Jesse Tree, attributed on grounds of style " rich and delicate patchwork colour, gentle doll-like figures, sweet piety. In the National Gallery, London, there's a Geertgen Nativity where the baby shines out of the darkness like a light bulb.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor