Absolon Stumme’s 1499 altarpiece presents a mystical depiction of one of Advent’s key symbols—the tree of Jesse. Jesse’s tree is a royal symbol: a lineage flourishing from Jesse through David down the centuries to the birth of Christ, our King of Kings. The tree branches out to show others in this lineage, names of ancestors that Matthew and Luke preserve for us in the Gospels. We see the evangelist on the left, holding a scroll, pointing to this lineage in Scripture, as this vivid depiction of it surrounds him. The tree is fantastical—a golden flower that buds forth with the ancestors of Christ. On top of the tree, the Christ-child reigns in golden light.
Crowning this royal lineage, the Christ-child is a strange symbol of sovereignty. He is small, naked, held by his mother—an image of utter dependence. Yet, the words of Isaiah echo here: “Not by appearance shall he judge,” as his reign brings about justice and peace. With the reign of this strange, small king, our perceptions are tested as well: what is true power, what is true glory, what is true success? As the wolf pairs with the lamb, the leopard with the goat, and the calf with the young lion, we get hints from Isaiah for answers to these questions.
On the bottom of the tree, Jesse sleeps—an allegory that brings to mind the sleeping Adam, while God fashioned Eve from his side. From the sleeping Jesse, God brings forth a new lineage—the royal lineage that proclaims the sovereignty of God. The tree that sprouts out from him is like a dream, a vision of hope for justice, peace, and faithfulness to reign over the suffering, turmoil, and despair of our world. In the fullness of time, Jesse’s dream becomes a reality, his hope made present in Jesus Christ, his descendant and Savior. What hopes do you harbor as we await Christ’s coming this Advent?