Genesis of Eden

Genesis Home

Schama, Simon 1995 Landscape and Memory, Alfred E. Knopf, New York.
ISBN 0-679-40255-1


Christ on a tree cross between Mary and John, Ermengau master Breviary Toulouse 1354

Had Frazer ever set eyes on the Big Trees of Mariposa and sampled the devotional literature that represented them as the pillars of a Christian temple, he would doubtless have attributed this to the peasant demography of American immigration. The verdant cross, on the other hand, a symbol of death proclaiming the vitality of organic life, would have been immediately recognizable to Aby Warburg as a felicitous oxymoron. We can assume as much, since the one page that he wrote on arboreal resurrection was, in fact, his last. He died of a heart attack at the age of sixty-three on October 26, 1929, in his house at Hamburg. When his wife, Mary, and his slavishly devoted assistant, secretary, and lover, Gertrud Bing, were going through his effects, they found a final entry in his diary, in verse, celebrating an apple tree in his garden which to all appearances had seemed dead, but which had, in the fall, suddenly burst into clouds of white blossom: Maytime in October, a mysterious resurrection.'

Holy oil ampoule 6th cent Palestine

In the fourth century A.D., in the Holy Sepulchre at Jerusalem, between the basilica and the rotunda, the emperor Theodosius I had erected a large golden cross, encrusted in gems and in the form of a burgeoning, flowering plant. And not long after, in fifth and sixth-century Palestine, there appeared among pilgrims silver and terra-cotta ampoules supposedly containing drops of oil pressed from the "wood of life" that made up the Cross. Most of the examples that survive show the cross in the form of a living palm tree. But the specifically palmate form of the tree-cross may also have a pagan source. The date palm, after all, was the very first fruit-bearing tree to be systematically cultivated five to six thousand years ago in ancient Sumeria and Mesopotamia. As the source of life in and places, producing honey, bread, and even, according to Pliny, a kind of wine, it was venerated as exceptionally fecund." (It does, in fact, have a long harvest period from July to November and can produce fruit for sixty or even eighty years.) Pliny also repeated one of the many stories of palms that perpetually revived themselves, new leaves constantly appearing at the site from which dead fronds had dropped. This gave the slender, prolific trees a magical aura of immortality. There was one such marvel that was shown to travellers as a witness to the birth of Apollo, much as the Mariposa Big Trees were said to have been contemporaries of the Christian nativity. And since the words for "palm" and "phoenix" were interchangeable in both Greek and Egyptian Coptic, it was possible for the creator of the early Christian mosaic in Santa Prassede in Rome to show the haloed bird actually perched on a palm bough, the light of his immortality illuminating the apostles below." Within the structure of the myth, then, it was neatly economical for the engravers of the ampoules to represent the adored Christ as a nimbused head atop a palm which becomes both his and the tree's trunk. Not surprisingly for an icon featuring a self-replenishing plant, the verso face usually represented the Resurrection.

Brevary 9th cent Metz

The botanical cross was rapidly translated into the iconography of the Christian West, where it put out multiple shoots. But sometimes traces of pagan prototypes hung on the branches. A decorated capital T (for Te Igitur) in a ninth-century Metz breviary in which the cross is formed from vines also includes a pair of oxen at the base and twin sacrificial lambs at either cnd of the crosspiece." Generally, this signified the victory of the new faith over the old,. and in time classical icons like the oxen were replaced at the base of the cross by the serpent of Genesis. The most austere and militant of the early church fathers were certainly aware that using trees and flowers to symbolize the death-that-is-no-death might come perilously close to outright idolatry. Formidable iconoclasts like St. Eligius, the bishop of Noyon, warned the faithful to obey scrupulously the commandment of Deuteronomy 12:2 to "utterly destroy all the places, wherein the nations which ye shall possess served their gods, upon the high mountains, and upon the hills, and under every green tree."" But tree cults were everywhere in barbarian Europe, from the Celtic shores of the Atlantic in Ireland and Brittany, and Nordic Scandinavia, all the way through to the Balkans in the southeast and Lithuania on the Baltic. And since the latter province was thoroughly converted only in the fourteenth century, it is still possible to find startling "graveyards" where, instead of conventional crosses, wooden totems, their forms unaltered from paganism, crowd together in antic disorder.

A debate ensued between radical iconoclasts, intent on extirpating idolatry root and branch, and pragmatists. Among the latter was the formidable pope Gregory the Great, who at the very beginning of the seventh century wrote to the abbot Mellitus (then on a mission to heathen England) advising him to take a tolerant attitude toward pagan practices, since from obdurate minds it is undoubtedly impossible to cut out every thing at once, just as he who strives to ascend to the highest place rises by degrees and not by leaps.

Armed with this kind of authorization, many of the shrewder proselytizers grafted Christian theology onto pre-existing pagan cults of nature. In Ireland, for example, Lisa Bitel has discovered that monastic cells and hermitages were established on the ancient woodland pagan altars called bill. The idea was to graft, rather than uproot." Pope Gregory explicitly counselled Mellitus to establish churches on the site of pagan groves.

When this people see that their shrines are not destroyed, they will be able to banish error from their hearts and be more ready to come to the places they are familiar with, but now recognizing and worship ping the true God."

In the Latin world, as Frazer reminded us, the ancient Roman cult of Attis may have helped, rather than obstructed, the work of evangelism. On the face of it, Atys does not seem promising conversion material. Driven by the jealous and vindictive Cybele to a madness that ends in self-castration, Atys (in one of those interventions that Jupiter so enjoyed) is transformed into a pine tree. But the cult, celebrated in imperial Rome with Dionysiac abandon, was a ritual of sacrifice and vegetable metamorphosis. Close to the spring equinox, dendrophors ritual tree-carriers-were sent into the woods near Rome to cut a sacred pine. Garlanded with anemones signifying the blood of the slaughtered Atys, the tree became the fetish of festivities that also included flagellation and self-mutilation followed by a day of hilaria, or rejoicing, to greet the divine resurrection on the day of equinox itself. Pigs stood in for the martyr and their blood flowed to make the spring propitious. In some places the flesh and blood of Atys were consumed through the symbolic communion of bread and wine." And throughout the whole area, of the cult the death of Atys was associated with evergreen resurrection, celebrated in the season the Christians would call Easter."

Even the most dramatic acts of evangelical tree surgery were ambiguous. None was more famous than that described in the monk Willibrord's life of St. Boniface. Relating the saint's mission to the Hessians in 723, he reported tha some were wont secretly, some openly, to sacrifice to trees and springs, some in secret and others openly." Boniface's response seemed unequivocal: With the advice and counsel of these last [converts] the saint attempted, in the place called Gaesmere (Geismar), while the servants of God stood by, to fell an oak of extraordinary size which is called by the old name of the pagan oak of Jupiter [almost certainly Wotan]. When, in the strength of his steadfast heart he had cut the lower notch, there was present a great multitude of pagans who in their souls were most earnestly cursing the enemy of their gods. But when the front of the tree was cut into only a little, suddenly the oak's vast bulk, driven by a divine blast from above, crashed to the ground, shivering its crown of branches as it fell, and as if by the gracious dispensation of the Most High, it was also burst into four parts and four trunks of huge size.... At this sight the pagans who had cursed, now believed and blessed the Lord and put away their reviling. Then, moreover, the holy bishop, after taking counsel with the brethren, built from the timber of the tree, a wooden oratory and dedicated it in honor of St. Peter the apostle." It is often said that the source of Boniface's determination was his own native landscape of Devon, dotted with obstinate tree cults, not least that of the Celtic yew, which still decorates Devonian churchyards as an emblem of immortality. But it's at least as plausible to offer an opposite interpretation, namely, that his familiarity with local animism may have given him a healthy respect for its power. After all, Willibrord's story, ostensibly a conversionary miracle, actually demonstrates the ways by which pagan beliefs could be turned to Christian ends. The "divine blast" that helped Boniface fell the oak is identical with the pagan lightning bolts which in Celtic and Germanic lore mark the tree as a tree of life. According to Pliny, the Druids believed mistletoe to grow in precisely those places where lightning, dispatched by the gods, had struck the oak. In related traditions its interior was thought to be the abode of the spirits of the dead. So Boniface's axe transformed rather than destroyed. The spiritually dead pagans were turned into living believers. The rotten (perhaps hollow) trunk of the idolatrous tree was turned inside out to reveal four perfect, clean timbers, from which a house of the reborn and eternally living Christ could then be constructed. Sometimes the hijacking of pagan myths could be shameless. At Trier, where there had been a thriving Bacchic cult to go with its wine production, Bishop Nicetius, in the middle of the sixth century, took the composite leaf-mask capitals from a nearby ruined Roman temple and set them on the piers of his new cathedral. Green Men like the Trier mask grin and grimace from so many bosses, vault ribs, and piers in European churches that they somehow manage to become invisible to the casual gaze. So we fail to register the grotesque incongruousness of fertility fetishes, vomiting greenstuff from their stretched mouths into the house of Christ. In Trier the church fathers may have become embarrassed by the intruders since the leaf-men were walled up in the twelfth century. But at exactly that time an even more spectacular example of tree idols appeared in the projections over the south portal at Chartres Cathedral. There, the foliate heads seem to have been chosen by Abbot Thierry with an eye to their suitability for Christian conversion. Thus the Bacchic vine, with bunches of grapes hanging from his mischievous whiskers, served as the pious sign of the eucharist; another head, disgorging acorn-loaded oak twigs, alluded to the Druid temple over which the church was said to have been built; and the frontal head of acanthus (the phoenix-plant of the Latins) represented yet another botanical icon of rebirth and resurrection." Why should Christianity have denied itself the irresistible analogy between the vegetable cycle and the theology of sacrifice and immortality? Had it been adamantly ascetic, Christianity would have been unique among the religions of the world in its rejection of arboreal symbolism. For there was no other cult in which holy trees did not function as symbols of renewal. Even a summary list would include the Persian Haoma, whose sap conferred eternal life; the Chinese hundred-thousand-cubit Tree of Life, the Kien-mou, growing on the slopes of the terrestrial paradise of Kuen-Luen; the Buddhist Tree of Wisdom, from whose four boughs the great rivers of life flow; the Muslim Lote tree, which marks the boundary between human understanding and the realm of divine mystery; the great Nordic ash tree Yggdrasil, which fastens the earth between underworld and heaven with its roots and trunk; Canaanite trees sacred to Astarte/Ashterah; the Greek oaks sacred to Zeus, the laurel to Apollo, the myrtle to Aphrodite, the olive to Athena, the fig tree beneath which Ramulus and Remus were suckled by the she-wolf, and, of course, Frazer's fatal grove of Nemi, sacred to Diana, where the guardian priest padded nervously about the trees, awaiting the slayer from the darkness who would succeed him in an endless cycle of death and renewal . It was to be expected, then, that Christian theology, notwithstanding its official nervousness about pagan tree cults, would, in the end, go beyond the barely baptized Yggdrasil of a twelfth-century Flemish illumination where the boughs of the world-tree support paradise. But it was only when the scriptural and apocryphal traditions of the Tree of Life were grafted onto the cult of the Cross that a genuinely independent Christian vegetable theology came into being.

Heinrich Vogtherr Glaubensbaum 1524

The original source was the text in Genesis 2.9 that specified not one but two trees in the Garden of Eden: the fatal Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and the vital Tree of Life. When Adam and Eve are evicted for having sampled the fruit of the former, the Lord God "placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubims, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life." From the very beginning, then, they are planted together as necessary opposites; the Tree of Life guarded so that, in the form of the Cross, it could redeem the Fall. In chapter 7 of the first-century apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus, Christ enters hell to liberate the dead from Satan and, taking Adam's hand, announces: "Come with me all you who have suffered death through the tree which this man [Adam] touched. For behold I raise you all up again through the tree of the cross." Sometimes the tree announced its own destiny as it did in Anglo-Saxon to the tenth-century writer of the Dream of the Rood. In his vision the forest tree describes its own physical fate-hacked, felled, and torn as if it were a surrogate for the torments of Christ. So when it receives the body of the Savior, the substance of the tree and the Messiah dissolve into each other in a single organism of death and redemption. Rightly could the tree say, "They pierced me with nails.... / They marked us together / I was all bedewed with blood."" No taxonomist, the tree of the Dream unhelpfully fails to identify just what kind of tree it is. But perhaps this was just as well since an entire genre of literature developed in which the varieties (oak, ash, holly, and yew in the Frankish north; olive, cedar, fig, and cypress in the south) dispute their respective claims to have constituted all or part of the Cross. And the timber history of Christ, born in a wooden stable, mother married to a carpenter, crowned with thorns and crucified on the Cross-helped elaborate an astonishing iconography. As a source, scripture was supplemented with the various versions of the Legend of the True Cross. In a twelfth-century version Adam, nine hundred and thirty-two years old and (understandably) ailing, sends his son Seth to fetch a seed from one of the Edenic trees. Returning, the son then drops the seed in Father Adam's mouth, from where it sprouts into sacred history. It supplies a length for Noah's ark (a first redemption), the rod of Moses, a beam in Solomon's temple, a plank in Joseph's workshop, and finally the structure of the Cross itself." The image of the verdant cross, then, expressed with poetic conciseness the complicated theology by which the Crucifixion atoned for the Fall. And it imprinted itself on virtually every kind of sacred article through the Christian Middle Ages from a ninth-century breviary in the Benedictine abbey of Corvey, where the serpent snakes about the base of a palmate cross, through the great mosaic in the apse of San Clements in Rome, where the cross rises from a vast acanthus, to a fifteenth-century breviary by the Ermengau Master (color illus. 2 3), in which the bent boughs of the palmate cross rhyme with the mortified rib cage of the suffering Christ."

There was more than one iconographic route to the vernal resurrection. In cathedral windows (at Chartres, for example), and in psalters, breviaries, and Books of Hours, a tree sprouts from the loins of Jesse and rises heavenward to the Passion, with the Father observing from its crown. So the wooden elevation rises from its carnal root to its celestial crown, from matter to spirit. Other holy plants were variations on the dead-and-alive theme. In a late medieval Lotharingian Book of Hours, for example, Moses witnesses not one but two botanical miracles (color illus. 24). The bush that burns and burns but is not consumed is host not merely to the commanding voice of God but to a riot of flowers that defeat the licking flames. But beside it is the emblem of paganism: an ancient, Germanic oak, eaten away with heathenism. Yet from the center of its dead trunk the May-blooms of resurrection rise in triumph; a spring blossoming that continues into the glorious paradise garden that decorates the margins of the page.

Giovanni da Modena, Mystery of the Fall and Redemption of Man

The miraculous transformation of dead into living wood supplied one of the most prolific motifs of the Christian tradition. The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, for example, dry since the Fall, was said to have developed green shoots at the time of the Resurrection. In Giovanni da Modena's Mystery of the Fall and Redemption of Man in the church of San Petronio in Bologna, Adam and Eve stand in contrite atonement on the thorny side of the tree cross while Mary, with a chalice to catch the vinous blood of the Savior, stands beneath its leafy branches with the apostles and fathers of the church. Sacred plants and trees developed a reputation for blooming at Christmas and rapidly developed their own cult of veneration and pilgrimage. Not far from Nuremberg, according to a fifteenth-century writer, an apple tree revealed itself on Christmas Eve to be heavy with both blossom and fruit, a miracle at once botanical and theological." A hawthorn tree that stood on a hill outside the town of Glastonbury in Somerset was said to have grown in the precise place where Joseph of Arimathea, on a mission to southwest England, had planted his staff. On the next day the staff had taken root and was in full blossom, and from then on was expected to repeat the miracle each Christmas. And though the iconoclastic Puritans deliberately destroyed the Glastonbury Thorn during the Civil War in their campaign to uproot idolatry, local royalists were said to have taken cuttings and replanted them elsewhere, ensuring both the survival of the tree and, no doubt, the survival of the line of Charles 1, the martyr-monarch, who was said by pious loyalists to have inherited the Savior's crown of thorns. In 1752 the change from Julian to Gregorian calendars decreed by the government caused great uncertainty at Glastonbury as to which Christmas, the old or the new, would be pro claimed legitimate by the blooming of the Thorn. On the twenty-fourth of December (new style), the tree's failure to bloom seemed to vindicate the suspicions of the calendrical conservatives that the change had been some sort of diabolical conspiracy. And when on the fifth of January, the first little white flowers opened, the thousands of faithful who had gathered, holding lanterns and candles, determined to celebrate Christmas on the day consecrated by the tree. As long as Christian Europe remained relatively unified during the Middle Ages, dead and-alive trees were rendered within a single image or ritual.

Piero della Francesca Resurrection 1463

In Piero delta Francesca's Resurrection at San Sepolcro, for example, the risen Christ stands holding the blood-red cross banner between the dry land planted from Eden to Tuscany. But as the fissures in the congregatio fidelium began to open and gape, so the trees began to represent irreconcilable opposites: the Old and New Testaments; the synagogue and the church; sin and salvation; Satan and Christ; death and life. In Johannes von Zittau's version of the chastisement of disobedience, the two trees are still mysteriously braided together with the serpent. But Eve and the Virgin are counterpointed as sacred and profane fruit-pluckers. So while Mary presents the fruit of her womb on the left, Eve offers hers as a death's-head to a stubborn crowd of pointy-hatted Jews on the right.

In the Protestant art of the next generation, these divisions actually shape the formal composition of the paintings. Holbein and Cranach the Elder both produced allegories of the Fall and the Passion, bisected down the center by a tree that is dead on one side, green on the other. Almost nothing in the engraving after a panel from Cranach's work shop is without its symbolic opposite. The lamb, the wound, and the Holy Spirit on the green" side are paired with the Fall and the descent into hell (observed by the Jews) on the other. And for all the Reformation's hatred of Catholic icons, Lutheran printers woe not above borrowing them for their own theology. Heinrich Vogtherr's woodcut of 1524 is a good example of how the old Pauline tradition of the "Tree of Faith" (a variation on both the Tree of Jesse and the Ages of Man) could re-emerge from a great bath of Lutheran wordiness as an impeccably orthodox Protestant image. The roots of the tree are embedded in Gottes Wort, and, tended by apostolic gardeners, the tree ascends directly (without any pruning or grafting by the clergy!), via faith (the heart), to the mouth of Understanding, and higher still to Christ crucified on a palm tree surmounted by the Holy Spirit and finally the Father.

Workshop of Lucas Cranach Allegory of the Fall and the Passion

It was the Counter-Reformation's stroke of genius, of course, to brandish exactly the signs, symbols, mys tery, and myths which Protestant asceticism had ordered obliterated. So in the century between 1550 and 1650, a great forest of holy trees and verdant crosses sprouted in churches, chapels, and wayside shrines. And though the Jesuits were the stage directors of the new devotional theater, it was Franciscan tradition that gave the church these sacred arbors. The lignum vitae had been the site of St. Bonaventure's meditations on the Tree of Life, and it reappeared in all manner of prints, paintings, and even sculptures.

Taddeo Gaddi The Tree of the Cross (The Tree of Life), mid 14th cent.

In the fourteenth century Taddeo Gaddi had painted a spectacular Passion for the refectory of Santa Croce in Florence, in which the cross appears as a twelve-branched tree (for the apostles), each laden with the fruit of the Gospels. Nearly two centuries later the greatest graphic artist of the Catholic Baroque, Jacques Callot, etched two trees of the living dead. They are not usually associated with each other. The horrifying print from the Petites misereres de laguerre, with its harvest of hanging corpses, has been read, long after Callot was dead and forgotten, as a pacifist protest against the Thirty Years' War. But Callot was a devout and ardent Catholic and it is much more likely that the moral behind the whole series was one of Christian acceptance and stoicism rather than any kind of radical dissent. If we set it alongside his other tree, drawn and engraved at the same time, around 1635-36, their relationship seems to echo the ancient Christian traditions of dead and living trees; of the world and the spirit; of knowledge and life. Callot's Tree of St. Francis modifies the Franciscan piety of the Gaddi fresco to a more missionary form. Twelve apostles venerate the tree in which the Trinity is seated and where the holy flame of the evangel illuminates the gospel fruit. The figure of Christ himself has ostensibly disappeared, like some pagan divinity, back into the substance of the tree, where, however, it is unmistakably present in the anthropomorphic trunk and branches.

Jacopo Ligozzi The Beech Tree of the Madonna at La Verna 1607

Because of the saint's strong associations with Christianized nature worship, the Franciscans of the seventeenth century seem to have produced a particularly emphatic tradition, of Savior-Trees. For his series of drawings of the mountain retreat of Monte Verna in Pied mont, the Florentine artist Jacopo Ligozzi drew The Beech of the Bell, where the tree trunk plainly echoes the twisted form of the crucified Savior. And in a still more startling image, a second cruciform beech not only seats a vision of the Virgin and child in its branches but uses a hollow cavity to suggest the tomb of the Resurrection, neatly incorporating all three elements-Nativity, Passion, and Resurrection-within a single vegetable form. Verdant crosses were not the exclusive property of the Counter-Reformation.

Hendrick Goltzius, Christ on the Tree of Life 1610.

The most beautiful and startling example I know was painted by the great Dutch humanist Hendrik Goltzius toward the end of his life, in 1610 . His whole career had uneasily straddled confessional allegiances, neither militantly Catholic nor formally Protestant. His teacher, the engraver and scholar Coornhert, had been Erasmus's student, and in many ways Goltzius's Tree is a typically Erasmian compilation of motifs ancient and modern, pious and secular, devotional and poetic. The living cross on which the crucified Christ hangs is specifically an apple tree in fruit. But the textual source is from the Old Testament, chapter 2 of the Song of Songs:

As the apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved among the sons. I sat down under his shadow with great delight, and his fruit was sweet to my taste.

Jesus is, of course, the fruit, the apple lying in Mary's lap. But he is also the fruit plucked by the flying, apple-cheeked cherub whose face, in the Mannerist idiom of the time, bears an expression of such calculated sweetness that it almost convinces the beholder that the Passion was, after all, worth the pain. The scene is all the more astonishing in that while Goltzius has given Christ the head of a human in the throes of torment, his body goes well beyond the twisting conventions of Mannerist modelling. The arms are muscled to follow the natural knots and swellings of the tree's branches; the torso clings and covers the trunk as if it had indeed become indivisible from the wood. And the line that projects forward following Christ's fluttering loincloth is extended backward along the leafy sprig of new growth. Is it possible, too, that this anthem to suffering and rebirth was not merely a theological allegory? Frima Fox Hofrichter, who first commented on the painting in 1983, added the intriguing historical footnote that Haarlem, where Goltzius presided over the founding generation of northern Netherlands artists, had the dorre boom, the "burnt tree," as a civic emblem. In the siege and sack of the city in 1572-73, Spanish troops had burned its woods and outlying orchards. And Goltzius's patriotic sympathies are well known from his engravings. His own spectacular contribution to the verdant cross tradition might easily have functioned as a symbol of civic as well as spiritual resurrection. The phoenix-tree had travelled a clear millennium from the crude little terra-cotta vessels of sixth-century Palestine to the leafy apple tree of Haarlem. But it still had some way to go.

Mary in the Burning Bush - Fromont (Queen of Heaven)