Friday, March 2, 2012

Our Lady of the Dry Tree

This was the image on my desk calendar yesterday morning:

It was painted in 1462 by the Belgian Petrus Christus and is titled Our Lady of the Dry Tree. I was struck by the name and when I ripped it off the calendar and peered closely, I wondered at the weird little things hanging from the thorns that look like letters and admired the jewel-like red and blue of the madonna's robes. As usual, the face of the baby Jesus is creepy (why is this always so?), but if you enlarge the painting on the computer, the beauty of Mary's face is astonishing. There's an interesting story behind Our Lady of the Dry Tree, which was the name of a confraternity, typical during the Middle Ages and Renaissance. These were groups of friends and members, often secret, that engaged in cultural and charitable activities, and Our Lady of the Dry Tree holds particular symbolism and mystery. It presented the message of the Redemption unique to any other painting in art history.  Here's what a fascinating website, called The Secret History of Art says:

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. 

If you're interested, you can read more about it here. I'm not sure why I was so struck by this little painting (it's tiny -- only five inches or so) -- I think, though, that it made me wonder why we have to listen to so much warped and twisted ugliness when we talk about religion nowadays. I know that there was some serious warped and twisted ugliness surrounding religion in the Middle Ages, but the art and beauty and mystery that sprang from belief gives me solace, in a way. There is much relief, at least for me, in the contemplation of so much mystery and awe. 

I think I must do more turning away from the obscene spokespersons of faith today and fall into art and free expression to really experience the divine.


  1. People always wonder why I have so many Madonnas in my house when I am so blatantly NON religious. I think you gave me the answer I've always wanted to give them.
    Awe and mystery.
    And, oh, mothers.

  2. "I think I must do more turning away from the obscene spokespersons of faith today and fall into art and free expression to really experience the divine." That sounds like a great plan, to me - it actually sounds like something that (dare I say it?) Jesus might have done.
    Good for you; filter, filter, filter.

  3. I don not like religion, and I was raised Lutheran, not Catholic, but I can't resist the Virgin of Guadalupe. For me, she is a representation of feminine divinity, which sadly we have so little of. You remind me here of Sue Monk Kidd, have you read her works on spirituality? Her 'Dance of the Dissident Daughter' changed my life.

  4. You are such a tremendous teacher, Elizabeth! I love that I am continually being introduced to things I would never otherwise have found.

    And I agree with Vesuvius - "Dance of the Dissident Daughter" was a tremendous book.

  5. A beautiful painting, for sure. A bit of a shame though that it resulted from placing the blame on Eve.

  6. I reckon the title, Mary of the dry tree is evocative and the image stunning. I too enjoy such odd associations, history as it comes down to us can seem very strange and yet so resonant.

  7. "I think I must do more turning away from the obscene spokespersons of faith today and fall into art and free expression to really experience the divine." Because we have too many "spokespersons" today whereas in Christ's times we had so few. And too many of the "spokespersons" are not representative of Christ or Buddha or anyone for that matter and the misrepresentations cause people to turn away from the very truth itself because they are disgusted by the hypocrisy and erroneously equate the "spokesperson" with the teachings. We have too many Ted Haggards and Jimmy Swaggerts who are blatantly railing about the very "sins" they are committing in their secret closets. A friend who is an Evangelical Christian recently attended a conference where a female speaker stated that a new day was coming to the US...she warned pastors and ministers that if they had dirty little secrets they were going to be exposed this year and it was now time to fall on their faces before God and get their lives in order. I look forward to the days when Christ is no longer misrepresented by charlatans. I hope she is correct. I'm sick of Jesus getting a bad rap.

  8. I'm reading a book about Buddhist psychology right now "The Sanity We are Born With", I think. In it the author finds it odd that so much of Western religion, all of it, really, goes back to original sin and doesn't accept or embrace the notion of innate goodness in people. Love the painting.



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