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Geertgen tot Sint Jans: Tree of Jesse

Geertgen tot Sint Jans ca. 1460/65 – ca. 1488/93

Tree of Jesse

oil on panel (89 × 59 cm) — c. 1500 Museum Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Geertgen tot Sint Jans biography

This work is linked to Isaiah 11:1

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The prophet Isaiah spoke of a tree of Jesse that would bear a fruit that would rule with wisdom and justice. Jesse was the father of king David, who according to the apostle Matthew was an ancestor of Jesus.

Jesse is lying asleep on the ground. His offspring sits in the tree, starting with David (with lyre) and continuing with Solomon, Roboam, Abia, Asa, Josaphat, Joram, Ozias, Joatham, Achaz, Ezekias and Manasses. In the top Mary resides, with the infant.

The praying nun in the foreground could be a member of one of Haarlem's many orders (Haarlem was Geertgen's home town). The man on the right, contrary to the kings dressed in contemporary clothes, could be the rector of her order. The nun was literally covered by a wall until her 'rescue' in a 1930 restoration. Perhaps protestant owners considered the presence of a catholic nun unappropriate.

The man behind the nun is probably Isaiah, although it is unclear why he has a pelgrim's bag hanging from his belt.

The scene is set in a garden enclosed by walls, a hortus conclusus, which is a reference to Mary's virginity.

The attribution to Geertgen is not undisputed. For many years the panel was thought to be made by his student Jan Mostaert. But the date of around 1500 makes that unlikely, as Jan was simply too young to create such a demonstration of craftmenship. But some sources claim Geertgen himself died before 1490, although others suggest he was still alive around 1495. Research into the wood of the panel has shown that it was most likely not painted before 1494, so perhaps a third and yet unknown master is the true author.

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