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.

THE ARTIST

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

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Summer nights: ‘Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp’
TVBut what do we Brits really know about them?
Arts and Entertainment
Dr Michael Mosley is a game presenter

TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    A groundbreaking study of 'Britain's Atlantis' long buried at the bottom of the North Sea could revolutionise how we see our prehistoric past

    Britain's Atlantis

    Scientific study beneath North Sea could revolutionise how we see the past
    The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember,' says Starkey

    The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember'

    David Starkey's assessment
    Oliver Sacks said his life has been 'an enormous privilege and adventure'

    'An enormous privilege and adventure'

    Oliver Sacks writing about his life
    'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

    'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

    The Rock's Chief Minister hits back at Spanish government's 'lies'
    Britain is still addicted to 'dirty coal'

    Britain still addicted to 'dirty' coal

    Biggest energy suppliers are more dependent on fossil fuel than a decade ago
    Orthorexia nervosa: How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition

    Orthorexia nervosa

    How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition
    Lady Chatterley is not obscene, says TV director

    Lady Chatterley’s Lover

    Director Jed Mercurio on why DH Lawrence's novel 'is not an obscene story'
    Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests

    Set a pest to catch a pest

    Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests
    Mexico: A culture that celebrates darkness as an essential part of life

    The dark side of Mexico

    A culture that celebrates darkness as an essential part of life
    Being sexually assaulted was not your fault, Chrissie Hynde. Don't tell other victims it was theirs

    Being sexually assaulted was not your fault, Chrissie Hynde

    Please don't tell other victims it was theirs
    A nap a day could save your life - and here's why

    A nap a day could save your life

    A midday nap is 'associated with reduced blood pressure'
    If men are so obsessed by sex, why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?

    If men are so obsessed by sex...

    ...why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?
    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3

    Jon Thoday and Richard Allen-Turner

    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3
    The bathing machine is back... but with a difference

    Rolling in the deep

    The bathing machine is back but with a difference
    Part-privatised tests, new age limits, driverless cars: Tories plot motoring revolution

    Conservatives plot a motoring revolution

    Draft report reveals biggest reform to regulations since driving test introduced in 1935