This impressively writhing mass of carved limestone is one of a pair in the corners of the chapel of the Hospice de Saint Roch in Issoudun.
The Tree of Jesse.
At the end of the 15th century Pierre de la Chèze, rector of the hospice between 1494 and 1510, ordered the construction of a new chapel, probably in 1502. It was to be bigger and more luxurious than its predecessor, a modest oratoire. He enriched it with a significant collection of sculpture, much of which still survives in situ. No other space or building in the hospice is this lavish. Quite the contrary. Everywhere else in the complex the architectural watchwords are functionality and simplicity.
The north wall is entirely rendered in fleurs de lys, originally painted in golden yellow on an azure blue background. A polychrome vegetal frieze follows the contours of the junction between wall and ceiling of the chapel, regularly punctuated by six supports for beams ornamented with the twelve apostles. On either side of the stained glass window depicting the Crucifixion there are two monumental scupltures, more than 5 metres high, in very high relief decorating the corners of the eastern wall, in place of a retable. They illustrate a theme, the Tree of Jesse, very widely found in Europe, but in a manner more lush and extravagant than anywhere else can boast. This pair of Jesse Trees is unique in Europe and was listed as a National Monument in its own right in 1908. The sculpture is beautifully executed, by an unknown workshop.
The east wall of the chapel.
This representation of the Tree of Jesse is inspired by several biblical texts which announce the coming of Christ as a descendant of the family of Jesse. According to the Prophet Isaiah "And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots, the spirit of the Lord resides within him..."
Jesse, his name encrusted in black letters in the limestone, is stretched out, eyes closed, dreaming of his descendants. From his torso emerges a fig tree, with branches supporting fifteen kneeling ancestors from the royal line of Israel. Starting with his son David, recognisable by his harp, to Joseph and the baby Jesus in the arms of Mary, triumphant, against a radiating backdrop and crowned by two angels.
A king, in medieval dress, kneeling on a lotus and holding a sceptre,
surrounded by vegetation.
The design is held together with the representations of vegetation throughout. It is the tree itself which directs the eye, and a cohesiveness with the rest of the room is achieved by the foliate cornice all around the room. All the plants chosen are of course symbolic.
The oak tree has particular significance in the Bible. It is both magical and earthly, allowing messages from the heavens to be transmitted to the Earth. As a timber for secular purposes it was seen as having no equal, and it was near an oak tree that Abraham received his revelation.
The east window, depicting the crucifixion.
The fig tree, native to the Mediterranean, was possibly thought of as the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. It is held in high esteem and figures in biblical studies of the time. In the Book of Kings the trees ask that the fig rule over them.
The flowers on which the kings kneel resemble lotuses, a quite usual decoration for seats or footrests of the time. It signifies that the person installed on them has an elevated spiritual authority over and above the ordinary person.
The treatment of the characters is in typical Medieval realistic style. This ensures the viewer of the time is in no doubt as to the fact that these people are powerful kings, in their European costume and arms. They are all in fact very similar in terms of their armour. They wear an assortment of plate or mail armour on all the exposed parts of their bodies and limbs -- elbow guards, mail hosen, knee guards and breastplates.
Some of the kings carry weapons -- swords and arbalests. The arbalest, or heavy crossbow, is a piece of portable artillery dating from the 12th century, and an extremely formidable offensive weapon. It had a long range and could be fired accurately. Its use was at one stage forbidden. Those that are not armed carry sceptres. The emblems are repeated and all the kings are kneeling except the third, Rehoboam the Proud.
David was the second king of Israel, the son of Jesse, born in the year 1000BC. He is depicted as a warrior, with his armour, telling the viewer that he made Israel a great state, through the strength of his cunning and courage. Equally, he is a poet and a musician, the composer of the psalms. The lyre allows us to identify him with certainty.
Jesse is the character who appears as a visionary, a prophet, the nearest to the living. 'A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit' (Isaiah 11:1). Jesse was an old man when David was born. This late birth, after Jesse had given up hope of a son, is assimilated by the medieval scholars in the iconography of the Virgin Mary giving birth to the Christ child. Other Biblical texts reinforce the link between the tree and religion, like the vision of Seth, or Jacob's ladder, unifying heaven and earth. The tree is the symbol of the universal church. This style of genealogical tree over the centuries was adopted by science and became the tree of evolution in the 19th century.