15.06.30, Salonius and Worm, eds., The Tree

Main Article Content

Kerry Paul Boeye

The Medieval Review 15.06.30

Salonius, Pippa, and Andrea Worm, eds. The Tree: Symbol, Allegory, and Mnemonic Device in Medieval Art and Thought. International Medieval Research, 20. Turnhout:Brepols, 2014. pp. xviii, 258. ISBN: 9782503548395 (paperback).

Reviewed by:

Kerry Paul Boeye
Loyola University Maryland

The nine essays in this thought-provoking volume investigate the meanings and functions of visual representations of trees in western medieval cultures. The enormity of the subject can be glimpsed in the facing color plates on pages xiv-xv of the book: on the left is a visually unpretentious diagram from circa 1200 laden with text in red, blue, and black ink; opposite, appears a brilliantly colored manuscript miniature from a century later that merges the Crucifixion with a resplendent Tree of Life. That both would have been understood as a "tree" in the Middle Ages indicates the difficult, intriguing challenges set for a book aiming to investigate such heterogeneous material.

As a whole, the book successfully illustrates the rich multiplicity of arboreal imagery in terms of forms and meanings. The authors also, to varying degrees, probe questions concerning the motivations and implications tied to particular uses of tree imagery. In a concise and effective introduction, Pippa Salonius and Andrea Worm chart the state of research on medieval representations of trees, which has blossomed significantly since the 1990s. They underscore that this development has been driven by surging scholarly interest in the diagrammatic capacities of visual representations to structure knowledge. Trees provided a chief schematic form for such diagrams. Many of the essays in the book, in accord with these research trends, explore the use of trees to organize knowledge, especially historical and genealogical knowledge. Such organization subjected knowledge to potential ideological manipulation, while also facilitating memorization and the future use of knowledge. Alongside these diagrammatic aspects of trees, the co-editors observe a different, more iconographic approach in scholarship that analyzes the symbolism of both diagrammatic and mimetic representations of trees.

The contributors write primarily on material from France, Germany, and Italy in the twelfth through fifteenth centuries. A few discuss objects from England and Spain, and Salonius, the only contributor to foray beyond western Europe, investigates Byzantine artworks. The essays are arranged in a rough thematic progression that begins with genealogical tree imagery and ends with the Tree of Life, but numerous topical connections reach across the collection.

In the opening essay, Marie-Pierre Gelin examines representations of the Tree of Jesse in English and French stained glass from the mid-twelfth through mid-thirteenth centuries. Building on the robust body of research on this material, and the work of Margot Fassler in particular, Gelin discusses the roles these monumental images played in promoting the Cult of the Virgin in the context of church liturgy. She especially emphasizes the connections between the Tree of Jesse windows and the Stirps Jesse responsory, and the frequent positioning of these windows in axial chapels, where the Tree of Jesse served as a pivot between the two Testaments in glazing cycles.

Andrea Worm studies the development genealogical diagrams and trees as frameworks for historical narrative from an innovative perspective offered by Trees of Consanguinity. In the essay, she draws attention to three large twelfth-century bibles--the Parc, Floreffe, and Foigny bibles--that are each prefaced by a Tree of Consanguinity and a sequence of genealogical tables running from Adam to Christ. Although commonly found in legal manuscripts, Worm knows no other bibles that have Trees of Consanguinity. The adjacent text, which she transcribes as an appendix, connects the six generations of the diagram to the Six Ages of the World and the Six Ages of Man, thus interpreting the Tree of Consanguinity as a schema for the progress of historical time. By also likening the diagram to the Tree of Life, furthermore, the text grafts the Tree of Consanguinity to the Fall and biblical history--an association reinforced pictorially by giving the Trees naturalistic features. Worm then turns to consider expansions of such history in a genealogical mode in Peter of Poitier's Compendium historiae, which became a standard pedagogical work, and Joachim of Fiore's more prophetic Liber figurarum.

Marigold Norbye contributes a valuable survey of French royal genealogical diagrams that range from an early example produced at St.-Aubin between 1060 and 1075 to examples from the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. She furthermore defines two issues important for analyzing the corpus of material. First, in her discussion of the diagram from St.-Aubin and a genealogical diagram included with the poem Karolinus by Gilles de Paris from circa 1200, Norbye directs attention to the ability of diagrams to construct kinship actively. Rather than document a lineage or summarize the contents of history, genealogical diagrams interpret kin relations and thereby subject them to ideological and political manipulation. For royal genealogies, in which kinship invariably weighed upon legitimate succession, such ideological ends could decisively shape the form of the diagram. The second issue emerges in the fourteenth century when leaves and branches began to be added to French royal genealogies. This shift toward naturalism created an inherent tension between the directionality of genealogical descent--read down the page--versus the upward growth of actual trees, which Norbye considers briefly in a series of later examples.

Annemieke Verboon departs from the genealogical, biblical, and historical uses of arboreal representations studied in the other essays to examine how tree diagrams were employed to convey a sequence of logical reasoning that originated in the Isagoge of Porphyry, the third-century Neoplatonic philosopher. The earliest such diagrams appear in ninth-century copies of Boethius' commentary on Isagoge, but the efflorescence of the Tree of Porphyry occurs in the influential Tractatus of Peter of Spain, written in the mid-thirteenth century, which incorporated Porphyry's logical sequence into scholastic philosophy. Hundreds of copies of the Tractatus survive, about forty percent of which, Verboon claims, have a Tree of Porphyry. Significantly, Peter of Spain was the first to refer to the logical diagram as the arbor Porphirii, and the diagram first takes on naturalistic features of a tree in Tractatus manuscripts. Verboon then analyzes the problems and benefits caused by conflating a dichomtomous logical sequence with the form of a tree. She demonstrates that the arboreal associations muddle the logic by both countering the downward progress of the diagram with the growth of a tree and garbling the asymmetry of the diagram with a symmetrical image of a trunk flanked by pairs of branches. These faults, she concludes, were evidently outweighed by the value of the Tree of Porphyry as a device that facilitated memorization and the use of knowledge.

Many of the themes and topics discussed in the opening essays are drawn together in Susanne Wittekind's contribution on a single manuscript: the Kremsmünster Speculum Humanae Salvationis. The manuscript, made in the late 1320s, probably for the Premonstratensian convent of Weissenau, is one of the most extensively illustrated copies of the Speculum. Wittekind focuses on the remarkable proliferation of trees and arboreal diagrams that preface and append the book. A Tree of Vices and a Tree of Virtues begin the manuscript, while a Tree of Jesse, a diagrammatic genealogy of Christ, a Tree of Consanguinity, and a Tree of Affinity appear at its close. Wittekind further notes the connections of these trees to trees depicted in the illustrations to the Speculum proper, many of which are invested with symbolic meaning. She argues that this abundance of arboreal imagery created associative connections between the various representations of trees across the book. The trees thus would have provided a meditational matrix for readers to ponder and delve into layers of meaning embedded in the history of salvation.

Ute Dercks examines the representation of Edenic trees in twelfth-century sculpture in relation to ambiguities in the description of Paradise in Genesis. The title--"Two Trees in Paradise?"--and introduction suggest that she will concentrate on the uncertainty regarding the number of trees at the center of Eden, as the biblical account mentions a Tree of Life and a Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Yet her discussion of the artworks focuses more on the ambiguities raised by the terse description in Genesis that fails to identify the species of the trees. From a series of Romanesque examples depicting Adam and Eve, Dercks concludes that sculptors did not portray the Tree of Knowledge as a particularized species, despite the increasing naturalism in art of the period.

Barbara Baert and Liesbet Kusters investigate another tree embedded in the context of biblical narrative: the tree customarily represented in images of Noli me tangere. The authors demonstrate that a tree appears in the earliest representations of the episode. On the level of staging, the tree functions as a synecdoche of the garden mentioned in the Gospel accounts. In some representations, the tree also serves as a structuring device that delineates narrative moments or establishes a visual boundary that reinforces the absence of physical contact between Magdalene and Christ. Baert and Kusters devote the majority of their essay, however, to elaborating the symbolic meanings of the tree. The crux of the symbolic interpretations rests upon associations between the Noli me tangere tree, on the one hand, and legends linking the Tree of Life to the Cross, on the other. From this key association follow exegetical ideas, including the Magdalene as a new Eve, and late medieval images of the tree in Noli me tangere scenes as half barren and half leaved, which reflect the Magdalene's sinful state as well as beliefs about the wood of the Cross. The density of interpretations offered by the authors creates a symbolic weight that at times seems too great perhaps for particular images to bear. Nevertheless, Baert and Kusters establish a rich horizon of meanings in which to situate representations of the Noli me tangere.

Ulrike Ilg studies the earliest monumental representations of tree diagrams derived from Bonaventure's Lignum Vitae, a devotional text on the Life of Christ composed around 1260. Many copies of the text from the late thirteenth century include a distinctive mnemonic tree diagram in which the Crucifixion is juxtaposed with the vertical stem of the diagram. In the early fourteenth century the Lignum Vitae diagram was adapted to monumental media. Ilg concentrates upon two important Florentine examples: an altarpiece by Pacino da Bonaguida of circa 1310 made for the Franciscan convent of Santa Maria a Monticelli, and the fresco by Taddeo Gaddi from circa 1340 in the refectory of Santa Croce. The prominent insertions of St. Francis and other mendicant saints in these monumental images, Ilg argues, assert a privileged place for the Franciscans in sacred history and claim for the Order a distinctively close relationship to Christ.

Pippa Salonius, in the final essay, demonstrates that an efflorescence of representations of monumental trees on the cathedral and in a parish church in early fourteenth-century Orvieto was linked to Franciscan influence in the city: notably, Bonaventure's residence in 1262 and 1264 and the presence of the court of Nicholas IV, the first Franciscan pope, from 1291-2. In a discussion that dovetails with Ilg's essay, Salonius analyzes a fresco of Bonaventure's Lignum Vitae in the church of San Giovenale that closely adheres to figural representations of the Tree found in slightly earlier manuscripts. Although San Giovenale was not a Franciscan church, Salonius attributes the fresco to the strong influence Bonaventure enjoyed from his close association with the city. Salonius directs most of her investigation toward the four enormous trees that adorn the cathedral façade on the faces of the buttresses flanking the portals. Each tree encloses a set of narrative scenes that move temporally from Genesis on the north buttress, to Old Testament prophecies, to the Life of Christ, and to the Last Judgment on the southern buttress. Remarkably, the tree harboring the Old Testament prophecies is a Tree of Jesse. This historiated Jesse Tree appears in an early preparatory drawing for the façade from the early 1290s, which suggests a decisive role for the Tree in the design of the sculptural ensemble. Contrary to previous scholarly opinion, which argued that the Tree was based upon a hypothetical lost archetype at San Domenico in Orvieto, Salonius convincingly demonstrates Byzantine origins for the historiated Tree of Jesse. According to Salonius, Nicholas IV, who had served as a papal envoy in Constantinople and maintained close connections with the Serbian court, likely motivated the adaptation of a Byzantine Tree of Jesse to the Italian cathedral façade. The potential importance of her argument here reaches beyond Orvieto, since she outlines the existence of a Byzantine iconographic type of the Jesse Tree distinguished both by historiation and by an emphasis on horizontality not found in more familiar northern European examples.

Overall, the book provides an effective assessment of the state of research relating to medieval visual representations of trees. Researchers working on specific artworks or historical contexts discussed in The Tree will also want to consult the volume. More broadly, the book will interest scholars studying word/images relationships, the role of diagrams in structuring knowledge, and mnemonic practices. Finally, The Tree delineates a field--one is tempted to say forest--for further questioning and research. Some questions may be quite specific: for instance, was including a Tree of Consanguinity with biblical material, as discussed by both Worm and Wittekind, associated predominantly with the Premonstratensians? Other potential questions may address more synthetic perspectives focused less on a particular variety of arboreal imagery, than upon medieval ideological or semiotic parameters of the tree as a form of representation.

Article Details