Nov 8, 2010
Petrus Christus "Our Lady of the Dry Tree"
Our Lady of the Dry Tree
Petrus Christus (1410-1475) was born in Flanders in the town of Baerle-Duc, and lived most of his life in Bruges. As with so many artists of the pre-Modern era, little or nothing is known of Petrus’ life before his first commission, which may be documented in contracts that have survived the ages. Many scholars think that Petrus was likely a pupil of Jan van Eyck, the greatest painter of northern Europe in the 15th century (and many would say of the world, during that time).
The first mention of Petrus Christus comes from 1444, when he was officially awarded citizenship of Bruges. From 1446-1454, Petrus worked on a number of commissions for wealthy citizens of Bruges, both religious works and portraits, where Petrus’ ghostly delicacy and detail really shine. In 1462-63, he was commissioned to construct elaborate decorations to celebrate the triumphal entry into Bruges of the Duke of Burgundy, Philip the Good (who was a great patron of the arts, including of Jan van Eyck). Most of the greatest artists of the Renaissance were employed, at one time or another, to construct decorations for weddings, parties, masquerades, triumphal entries, religious holidays, and more—works that were essentially meant for use on one occasion and which were then disposed of. Almost none survive. It’s a shame, because it would be marvelous to see what artists from Petrus Christus to Michelangelo to Raphael and on would have made of this unusual event-specific art form.
This painting proved particularly important for historians as well as for Petrus himself, because it commemorates his entry into a religious confraternity called the Confraternity of Our Lady of the Dry Tree, a club of which he and his wife were members between 1458-1463. Religious confraternities abounded throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance. They were essentially societies of friends who engaged in charitable and social activities together (much like the Knights of Columbus or the Rotary Club or Lions Club today). Occasionally the societies were rather more secret, and would engage in Masonic-style rituals. But in the main, members would pool resources to build orphanages or hospitals for the poor, or hold feasts in honor of patron saints.
The imagery in this painting is unique as far as art historians are aware, making it particularly interesting. It was copied in later works, such as the seal of the Municipal Archive in Bruges and the seal of the Royal Library of Albert I in Brussels. Because of its unique nature, it is safe to assume that the imagery comes from the rituals or specific belief-sets of the Confraternity of Our Lady of the Dry Tree, rather than any published source in literature, Biblical apocrypha, or mythology.
The confraternity is first mentioned in a 1396 document, and counted among its notable members the Dukes of Burgundy themselves, as well as most of the movers and shakers of Bruges high society. No one knows the true story of the foundation of the confraternity (which must have been established on or before 1396), and therefore historians are uncertain as to how this painting should be interpreted. In the 17th century there was a legend that the confraternity had been founded by Duke Philip the Good. The story goes that the Virgin and Child appeared to Philip in the trunk of an old, dead tree just before a critical battle against the French. Philip prayed for victory before this miraculous arboreal image. After he won the battle, he established the confraternity in thanks for the victory.
A nice story, but it if we know that the confraternity was in place in 1396, then something doesn’t jive, as Philip the Good was born in 1396. However, it’s entirely possible that this 17th century legend took the confraternity’s story of origin and conflated it with Duke Philip, its most famous member.
This tiny painting presents the message of the Redemption in a unique manner that appears nowhere else in known art history. The iconography is inspired by the Book of Ezekiel, wherein the Prophet Ezekiel says, “I the Lord have dried up the green tree, and have made the dry tree to flourish.” Theologians interpret this as a reference to Original Sin, with Mary replacing Eve as the “mother of the world.” Eve, in the Garden of Eden, was once the “green tree,” flowering and flourishing. But God made her wither and instead granted favor to the dry tree (Mary as a childless woman), allowing her to bring forth fruit from her womb. The parallel analogy is that the Tree of Knowledge is the dry tree, which died after Original Sin and the expulsion from Eden, but which would flower once more with the virginal conception of Christ. A book by Guillaume de Deguileville, written in 1330, conveys this concept of the green and dry trees, and some feel that de Deguileville was a member of the confraternity, or that his writings inspired the beliefs of the members.
Christ holds a crowned globe, showing himself to be the redeemer and spiritual leader of the world. The dry branches of the tree are cleverly bent and interlaced so as to form a crown that recalls the crown of thorns. Fifteen gilded letter “A”s hang from various branches of the dead tree: the “A” is the first letter of “Ave Maria,” and fifteen is the number of the Mysteries of the Rosary, the prayer in which rosary beads are used as a meditative tool to pray to Mary. This complex, intricate, wholly unique painting still holds many secrets about this powerful confraternity and the specifics of its belief system.
There is pleasure in the immersion into a sense of wonder and mystery. This painting holds hidden secrets, lost to historians. It is a puzzle which, if decoded, could shed light on a secret society that boasted some of the leading artists and rulers of Europe among its members. But for now, it remains an unsolved puzzle.