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.
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?
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.
The angel I began embroidering is still underway. The text “Gloria” got done and redone several times as I experimented with stitches for the lettering. The wings are currently on their third revision, as there needs to be the right sort of layout of feathers to please my eye, and I had only sketched it loosely. I took out the second try, drew a design more clearly, and am now re-addressing that. Not sure how I might vary the colors. I like the multicolored wings found in many depictions of angels:
There’s an enormous variation in the styles and colors of wings. Mine’s going for green and gold at the moment:
On another note: I’d like to thank Sarah Homfray for her excellent, encouraging and calming series of embroidery videos which I watch repeatedly. And also Steve Young, a horse trainer whose long, real-time videos with chatty commentary are also great company while I stitch.
I really miss being around horses. Today my former trainer sent me a video of my elderly mare. She looks great for her age!!
A few years ago I found a delightful Baby Jesus at a sacred art store in Spain. During my trip to Spain I had gone to numerous Christmastide Masses where the adoration of the Baby Jesus took place afterwards: the priest would fetch a life-sized Baby Jesus from a manger built near the altar and bring it to the steps for the congregation to kiss. I loved that ritual. I could not recall seeing it in Brazil, so I thought I’d buy a similar image to take back as a gift for a priest I knew.
When I got home and happily showed my purchase to some friends they responded with awkward flinches: “But he’s naked! Let’s get him some clothes!” I thought, my God, really? Are these people so strangely prudish that they’ve never diapered a baby? Have they never been in a household with an infant? I was used to toddlers running around in diapers. Newborns, not so much, as they were usually bundled up to avoid being chilly. But I’ve held my share of mostly-naked babies in my life and never thought it was strange.
The Baby Jesus was soon outfitted in a miniature chasuble and alb, which I thought cute, if a bit odd. But with all respect for local custom I delivered the gift dressed as required. (While trying to find photos of this from Brazil, I stumbled across this article about a similar custom in Mexico, though there it is specifically done for the Feast of the Presentation. There are a couple of good photos at the link.)
The subject came up again recently when I was showing some friends a painting I liked. Oh, but the Baby Jesus is naked! What good mother would leave her child undressed? Let alone Mary, Mother of God, who knew that her child was not just any old baby (which any mother would already consider a treasure!) but King, Redeemer, Saviour, Lord? Surely she wouldn’t just leave him laying about with not a stitch of clothes on, let alone do so in a desert climate in December and January, even less so in an unheated barn where the prickly straw and dirt floor would hardly be comfortable surfaces! This was the first time I’d heard something of a logical explanation for the apparent local custom.
If one needs greater authority than common sense, however, Holy Scripture specifies that the Holy Virgin wrapped the Christ Child in swaddling clothes before laying him in the manger. In fact, this detail was so important that the angels told the shepherds it was a sign by which they would recognize that they had found the Christ Child.
I still wondered if the depictions of the Holy Child naked versus swaddled might have to do with regional styles, or with different epochs in art history. So I did a brief survey of images on Wikimedia Commons. Here are a few interesting things I discovered:
Anything after the 15th century: naked, naked, naked
One odd result of the growing 15th century obsession with naked Baby Jesus is the plethora of images where the poor Baby is sprawled on the dirt floor at the feet of his apparently unconcerned parents and/or visiting angels or neighbors.
I checked Orthodox icons, too, for comparison. They were not sorted by date on Wikimedia Commons, my source of images. But the results were different. There were icons in which the Holy Infant was swaddled, dressed in a robe, or naked. But with a few rare exceptions this depended specifically on the context:
Baby Jesus in the manger: swaddled Baby Jesus enthroned on his Holy Mother’s lap while adored by the Magi or surrounded by saints or angels: robed Baby Jesus being given a bath by the midwife right after his birth (this is a not uncommon theme in Eastern Nativity icons): naked
So there you go – the curious case of the dressing of Our Lord by His Holy Mother, as depicted in art and text over 2000 years.
Moses is standing at the shore of the Red Sea. The Egyptians are closing in. A dispute arises as to what to do next, which Moses takes some time to resolve. He leads them in prayer, and then continues to pray, saying:
“O Lord of the world! I am like the shepherd who, having undertaken to pasture a flock, has been heedless enough to drive his sheep to the edge of a precipice, and then is in a despair how to get them down again…”
He goes on at some length. “But God cut short his prayer, saying: “Moses, My children are in distress-the sea blocks the way before them, the enemy is in hot pursuit after them, and thou standest here and prayest. Sometimes long prayer is good, but sometimes it is better to be brief.”
I had such a laugh at that. And it happens several more times, as Moses attempts to part the Red Sea and the sea argues with him, and he then talks to God again, who explains again what to do, and so on, repeating several more times “Don’t just stand there praying, Moses!!”
This is from Legends of the Jews by Louis Ginsberg. I love exactly this aspect of the tales, for they show such an intimacy with God.
Today is Pentecost. Here is my favorite medieval illumination:
And a lovely bit from the readings in Matins today:
While they received the visible presence of God in the form of fire, the flames of His love enwrapped them. The Holy Ghost Himself is love whence it is that John saith “God is love.” Whosoever therefore loveth God with all his soul, already hath obtained Him Whom he loveth, for no man is able to love God, if He have not gained Him Whom he loveth.
(from a homily by Pope St. Gregory the Great, speaking of the scene in the image above)
“And My Father will love him, and We will come unto him, and make Our abode with him.” O my dearly beloved brethren, think what a dignity is that, to have God abiding as a guest in our heart…