Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Jesse Tree Wood: Trunk, Vine, Leaves, Flowers, and Fruit-Part 2

I had hoped to have this prepared by Holy Cross Day, September 14th, but that was not to be.  In medieval times, there were two celebrations of the Holy Cross in the Roman Catholic Church.  The Inventions of the Holy Cross was celebrated on May 3rd and the Exaltation of the Holy Cross on September 14th.  

Wood of the True Cross

            It might not be immediately obvious why a discussion of the wood of the instrument of brutal Roman punishment, crucifixion, should or even would be discussed when writing about the Jesse Tree.  The Jesse Tree celebrates the nativity of Jesus and his enthronement in glory where he “sitteth at the right hande of the father.”  The enthronement in glory is theologically tied to the coming again in judgment often called the Second Coming, at least since the Nicene Creed of 325 CE.  “[H]e shall come again with glory, to judge both the quicke and the dead.” (1549 Book of Common Prayer)  Or the Greek, “ἐρχόμενον κρῖναι ζῶντας καὶ νεκρούς.” and Latin, “Et íterum venturus est cum gloria, Iudicare vivos et mórtuos…”

            As it says in the 1549 Book or Common Prayer and only minimally modernized (The Burial of the Dead):  “In the myddest of lyfe we be in death, of whom may we seke for succour but of thee, o Lorde, whiche for our synnes justly art moved? yet o Lord God moste holy, o Lord moste mighty, o holy and moste merciful saviour, delyver us not into the bitter paines of eternal death.” (Order for the Burial of the Dead, 1549 Book of Common Prayer).  The words in Latin are: Media vita in morte sumus ; quem quaerimus adjutorem, nisi te Domine, qui pro peccatis nostris juste irasceris? Sancte Deus, sancte fortis, sancte et misericors Salvator, amarae morti ne tradas nos.  The words are an antiphon written perhaps about 750 in France and familiar to many clergy, clerks, monks, nuns and laypeople. 

            At times in human history, it has seemed that the only purpose of life was death.  Until the 20th century, mortality rates for infants, children, and adults were high, especially for children and women in childbearing years.  Death was an everyday fact of life.  A quarter of all newborns and infants died before their first birthday.[1]  Once children were fully weaned at age three, their diets were inadequate so death from malnutrition and infectious disease increased again at 4 years.[2]  About 36% of all children died before the age of 6 years.[3] Deaths continued in children older than 7 years because of malnutrition, infectious diseases, and increasing work load for children.[4]  Over 40% of children were dead by aged 10 years.[5]  Less than half of the children born reached their 21st year.[6]  For a women who survived childhood and became pregnant, she could expect up to a 1-2% chance of dying with each pregnancy or about 10% during her lifetime or more during times of food shortages or epidemics..  Even as late as 1900, the average adult life expectancy was only 47 years.
       Though most Jesse Trees do not have depictions the Crucifixion, a few do such as the already stained glass windows at Wells Cathedral or the Crucifixion scene in the oculus above the Jesse Tree in Beauvais Cathedral.  And certainly a monk or nun contemplating the wood of the trunk of Jesse would have thought about Jesus and his death upon the Cross.  In the popular French retelling of the Bible called Le Roman de Dieu et de sa Mère, the author recommends that the reader contemplate the meaning of the Crucifixion even when making the sign of the cross.[7]

 Helen finding True Cross. British Library Royal 6 E VI  f. 447v.  "Crux (Cross)" in the encyclopaedia entitled Omne Bonum (Circumcisio-Dona Spiritui Sancti). Made in south-east England, London, during the years 1360-1375. Scribe is identified at James le Palmer.

Legends of the True Cross

            The medieval mind was preoccupied with the interplay of words and images.  Examples shown in two biblical texts already discussed include: 1) Isaiah spoke of a stem from the tree stump of Jesse, and 2) Jeremiah prophesied a righteous Branch from David.  There is an additional tree or wood image that might not immediately come to mind.  When looking at sources such as the Bible picture books called Biblia Pauperum, one encounters pictures of the second dream of King Nebuchadnezzar.  In King Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, a tree grew from the center of the earth to a great height so it was seen from everywhere.  The leaves were beautiful, and there was abundant fruit.  Animals found shade under its branches and birds built nests in its limbs.  But then a Holy Watcher came and ordered that the tree be cut down except for the stump in the ground bound with iron and brass. (Daniel 4.4-27)  Daniel interprets the dream as a prediction of the life that the King was to lead.  King Nebuchadnezzar was to become very powerful.  Then the king would be driven from society to dwell as a wild animal eating grass and bathing in dew until he learned the sovereignty of the Most High over everything.  Then, just as the stump was left in the ground, so King Nebuchadnezzar would reestablish his kingdom. 

Nebuchadnezzar and his dream of the magnificent and large tree.  British Libaray Royal 6 E VII   f. 489.  From the entry for Nebuchadnezzar in Omne Bonum (Jacob-Zacharias). Made in south-east England, London from about 1360-1375

            To the medieval mind, the tree was hewed down so it could regrow as a Messianic kingdom.  The medieval mind saw these symbols of growth and destruction of trees as the destruction of Israel and subsequent redemption through Jesus Christ.  The reference is not just to the events of the gospels but also the hoped for second coming as expressed in Revelation 5.5:

            et unus de senioribus dicit mihi ne fleveris ecce vicit leo de tribu Iuda radix 
           David aperire librum et septem signacula eius.(Vulgate:Apocalypsis 5:5)
           Then one of the elders said to me, “Do not weep. See, the Lion of the tribe
           of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and
           its seven seals.” (Revelation 5.5, NRSV)

            To the early church, the crucifixion was still a source of pain and humiliation.  There are few references .to the cross or crucifixion in the writings of the early Christian church writers of antiquity.

Before Constantine

            Ignatius, was early church father who wrote in his “Epistle of Ignatius to the Ephesians” about the Glory of the Cross as a stumbling block.  He paraphrases Paul in I Corinthians 1.23, saying, “The cross of Christ is indeed a stumbling-block to those that do not believe, but to the believing it is salvation and life eternal.”[8]

            Another early reference to the cross is in the Epistle of Barnabas written at the end of the 1st century or early 2nd century by an unknown author, despite the letter’s title.  Written perhaps in Alexandria, the author sees frequent references to the Cross in the Old Testament as an extended foreshadowing of life and salvation given by the death of Jesus.  To the author, Moses is a type of Jesus, especially Moses’ sufferings at the hand of the Hebrews when they complain and rebel.  The author says that because Eve sinned because of the serpent, just as the Hebrews in the wilderness were bitten with venomous snakes and died until Moses raised the bronze serpent on a pole that they might look on it.  The raising of the pole and the cure by looking upon it was an indication of the glory of Jesus. 
       The veneration of relics was first mentioned in the Martyrdom of Polycarp written about 150-160 CE.  After his body was burned, his bones was collected and preserved as they “more valuable than precious stones.” (The letter of the Smyrnaeans or the Martyrdom of Polycarp, 18.2. Lightfoot translation. <http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/martyrdompolycarp-lightfoot.html>.)

            In early Christian art, there are no crosses.  In the catacombs of Rome, one finds chi and rho, alpha and omega, fish, anchors, but no crosses per se.  In an early Christian church dating to the 200s found at Megiddo, Israel, the elaborate mosaic floor has two fish and geometric designs.

The Centuries after Constantine

           The crossi is seen  with some regularity  with or soon after the death of the Emperor Constantine.  Eusebius of Caesarea writing after the death of Constantine about 337 CE or so mentions that Constantine had a dream of a new banner to be carried into battle of a cross with a banner and chi-rho for Christ called a labarum.  It appeared on the coins of Constantine and his sons.  An example of a bronze coin referred to as a follis from the end of the reign of Constantine I is shown below.

Constantine I AE follis. 335-337 AD bronze coin minted at Arles with Chi-Rho on banner or labarum.  RIC VII 394

            Eusebius continues in the Life of Constantine to write about how the site where Jesus had been buried was venerated among Christians in Jerusalem but it was covered with a mound of dirt and a temple to Venus built on top.[9]  (One assumes that this is a reference to the destruction of Jerusalem under Emperor Hadrian and his rebuilding of the city as Aelia Capitolina.)  Constantine ordered that the site be cleared of temple and dirt, and on the site the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was to be built.  Constantine gives orders to Bishop Macarius of Jerusalem and the governors about the building of the church.  There is no mention of finding any cross.  The narrative continues with Constantine’s mother, Helena, founding a church at the grotto where Jesus was born, and another on the Mount of Olives the site of the Ascension.

Continued to next part.

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