Three sculptures of a retable, Tree of Jesse

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C. 1520
Oak with original polychromy
20 x 14 x 4 cm

Hans Nieuwdorp (ed.), Antwerpse retabels 15e-16e eeuw, I. Catalogus, Antwerpen 1993, p. 148, 149, pp. 166-169.

Susan L. Green, Three of Jesse Iconography in Northern Europe in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries, New York 2019, Introduction & Origin and History of Tree of Jesse Iconography.

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These three oak figures come from an Antwerp retable depicting the Tree of Jesse. The painted sculptures were part of a depiction of the ancestors of Christ, shown in a tree. Part of the branches of the tree are visible at the right sculpture.

The Tree of Jesse was a widely used and widespread subject in religious art. Depictions of the tree have been made since the 12th century, and peaked in the 15th and 16th centuries. The biblical scene is based on a vision of the prophet Isaiah designating Jesse, the father of King David, as the progenitor of Christ. From the heart or the loin of the sleeping Jesse sprouts a tree in which the ancestors of Christ are depicted and leads to Christ or Mary with child.

The composition of the people in the Three of Jesse is variable per depiction. Depending on which evangelist, Matthew or Luke, is taken as source the number of ancestors of Christ differ. In addition, saints or prophets are sometimes added and the amount of space for the depiction is often decisive. Central in the Three of Jesse are the kings of Israel, such as David and Solomon.

These three sculptures cannot be traced back to specific figures in the Three of Jesse. The clothing, and in particular the headgear, do suggest that the figure in the middle represents a king and the left and right figure represent prophets. (See the prophets in Three of Jesse (Antwerp 1515) in the collection Schnütgen Museum, Cologne, inv. 872 and 873.)

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