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Our Lady of the Barren Tree (Petrus Christus, ca. 1465)

Here is a tiny painting by Petrus Christus who worked in Bruges during the middle of the fifteenth century.  Painted around 1456, and measuring a mere 5 3/4 x 4 7/8 inches, the painting shows the virgin mother standing in the hollow of a darkened thorn tree holding the infant Jesus.  The imagery is unusual for Christian religious art.  The tree may stand for the long lost tree of knowledge–barren since the expulsion from paradise, but about to be brought back to life by Jesus.  Alternately the image may have an idiosyncratic meaning:  Christus belonged to “the Confraternity of Our Lady of the Dry Tree” and probably painted this work as personal devotional object for a wealthy fellow member.  Whatever the exact meaning, the barren tree’s wicked thorns certainly foreshadow the crown of thorns and Christ’s execution on the Cross.  The tree is hung with lower-case letter “a”s fashioned of gold.  The symbolic meaning of the letters is somewhat obscure—the most likely possibility is that they stand for “Ave Marias” and represent the 15 mysteries of the Rosary (a widespread devotional rite which represents the life of Jesus).  However they might also allude to knowledge outright, or to some personal reference (one must avoid the urge to think they represent the grade inflation now so rampant in the academic sphere).  Whatever its meaning, this little painting is a triumph of mysterious late-gothic mood.

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