chapter  3
43 Pages

The Tree of Jesse, the Carmelites and Other Religious Orders

BySusan L. Green

A large number of works which appear to appropriate Tree of Jesse iconography as a means of supporting or promoting the interests of different religious groups, have survived from the late medieval period. This chapter will consider these objects in some detail in an attempt to understand exactly how the function of the motif might have differed according to its use and location. Many of the works discussed are linked to the veneration of Saint Anne, and confraternities dedicated to the saint were a major source of patronage. During the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries a number of these were established in Germany by the Carmelite Order, and its monastery in Frankfurt became widely known as the headquarters of the Brotherhood of Saint Anne. 1 The first works to be examined here are the wing panels of an altarpiece believed to have been commissioned on behalf of this Frankfurt Brotherhood. Although well documented, the full iconographic programme of these wings has never been properly considered in the context of a Tree of Jesse study. This will demonstrate exactly how the Carmelites deliberately invoked the Tree of Jesse to communicate their unique relationship with the matrilineal genealogy of Christ, drawing on a well-established motif in order to create a strong identity and communicate a sense of authority. It will also be argued that the altarpiece was subtly devised as a means of advertising the benefits of confraternity membership, necessitated by the competition between mendicant orders for secular donations and bequests. The fact that we are aware of the provenance of the Frankfurt altarpiece is somewhat exceptional, as the context of other works with similar iconography is less well documented. Nevertheless, it has been widely assumed that many of these works were also commissioned on behalf of Carmelite churches; this premise will be challenged. Instead, it will be suggested that other religious groups may have adopted the Carmelites’ very specific imagery as part of the wider story of the life of Saint Anne, and, therefore, that the iconography in this context had a different function.