Monthly Archives: August 2022

Medieval trees

I was startled one day to see a tree on a city street in Spain (possibly in Oviedo) that looked just like one of the stylized trees in a medieval miniature. It had been so tightly pruned that it was no more than a few meters high and had pompoms of leaves at the end of short branches. It looked almost exactly like this tree in a depiction of Moses before the Burning Bush. I’d assumed the pom-pom tree was a whimsical invention of the artist. Instead it turned out to be a depiction of a type of pruning.

Copy of a medieval depiction of Moses before the Burning Bush. Original source lost. This is my own drawing.

Many medieval images depict scenes in towns or in gardens – domesticated landscapes. I expected there to be a lot of small, symmetrical trees there, since that’s what trees look like in that context. But what would trees look like when depicted in wilderness settings?

Here’s an example of a king being gored by a wild boar in a forest, in a painting from 1314. Very naturalistic trees. But the trees are not the subject, either. They are merely indicators of forest.
This is a delightful hunting scene. The forest in the background is playfully done, and with great artistry, too.
Hunting is a useful context for finding depictions of trees, and I’m trying to look for things well before 1500 (this one is from the early 1300s). But I’ve not found any images in which the trees in themselves are featured – they are most often a contextual background, or sometimes a useful feature (as when someone climbs a tree in the story).

More on this in the future, perhaps.

Dramatic landscapes

I was gently surprised yesterday to notice how many trees have very even, symmetrical shapes. Some are scraggly, squiggly, ziggy-zaggy, yes, but many have a species-specific crown shape that can be spotted even in a forested landscape seen at a distance. One just off to my left in that moment had a perfectly even curved crown. Another had puffs of leaves at the end of each branch; another was not just rounded on the top of the crown, but round all the way around, making a lollipop sort of shape like a child might draw. Then there are the ferny, pointy, skinny, flat and dozens of other shapes.

I thought I’d illustrate this post with some ‘trees in art’ found on wikimedia commons, but many of the paintings that resulted from that search featured dramatic trees that stood out in unusual ways – half dead, gnarly, enormous and craggy, twisted by the wind, and so on.

Here’s an example:

Or, looking back a couple centuries, to make sure it wasn’t mostly a 19th or 20th century phenomena:

I lost the original post, so am jumping ahead in what was originally a lengthier (and probably more tedious) thought process: I began to wonder if nature in and of itself, such as a featured dramatic tree, was a later development in Western art, and whether early depictions of trees in landscapes or as features would show a similar attention to dramatic trees.

So off to poke around some medieval art and see what I find. I’ll especially look for scenes that do not take place in a town or in a palace garden, to see how wild trees are depicted.