Advent, Day 10

LOOK: Tree of Life by Taddeo Gaddi

Gaddi, Taddeo_Tree of Life
Taddeo Gaddi (Italian, 1290–1366), Tree of Life, ca. 1350. Fresco painted for the refectory of the Franciscan church of Santa Croce in Florence (now a museum).

The Lignum Vitae (Tree of Life) by Bonaventure, an early Franciscan theologian from Bagnoregio, Italy, is a meditational treatise on the life of Christ. It asks readers to picture in their minds a tree bearing twelve fruits (cf. Rev. 22:2), its roots watered by an ever-flowing stream. Standing for specific attributes of Christ or events from the Gospels, “this fruit is offered to God’s servants to be tasted so that when they eat it, they may always be satisfied, yet never grow weary of its taste,” Bonaventure writes. “I call these fruits because they delight with their rich sweetness and strengthen with their nourishment the soul who meditates on them and diligently considers each one.” The chapter outline, organized by “fruit,” is as follows (translation by Ewert Cousins):

PART I. ON THE MYSTERY OF HIS ORIGIN

First Fruit: His Distinguished Origin

Jesus Begotten of God
Jesus Prefigured
Jesus Sent from Heaven
Jesus Born of Mary

Second Fruit: The Humility of His Mode of Life

Jesus Conformed to His Forefathers
Jesus Shown to the Magi
Jesus Submissive to the Law
Jesus Exiled from His Kingdom

Third Fruit: The Loftiness of His Power

Jesus, Heavenly Baptist
Jesus Tempted by the Enemy
Jesus Wonderful in His Miracles
Jesus Transfigured

Fourth Fruit: The Plenitude of His Piety

Jesus, the Solicitous Shepherd
Jesus Bathed with Tears
Jesus Acclaimed King of the World
Jesus, Consecrated Bread

PART II. ON THE MYSTERY OF HIS PASSION

Fifth Fruit: His Confidence in Trials

Jesus Sold through Guile
Jesus Prostrate in Prayer
Jesus Surrounded by the Mob
Jesus Bound with Chains

Sixth Fruit: His Patience in Maltreatment

Jesus Denied by His Own
Jesus Blindfolded
Jesus Handed Over to Pilate
Jesus Condemned to Death

Seventh Fruit: His Constancy Under Torture

Jesus Scorned by All
Jesus Nailed to the Cross
Jesus Linked with Thieves
Jesus Given Gall to Drink

Eighth Fruit: Victory in the Conflict of Death

Jesus, Sun Dimmed in Death
Jesus Pierced with a Lance
Jesus Dripping with Blood
Jesus Laid in the Tomb

PART III. ON THE MYSTERY OF HIS GLORIFICATION

Ninth Fruit: The Novelty of His Resurrection

Jesus Triumphant in Death
Jesus Rising in Blessedness
Jesus, Extraordinary Beauty
Jesus Given Dominion over the Earth

Tenth Fruit: The Sublimity of His Ascension

Jesus, Leader of His Army
Jesus Lifted Up to Heaven
Jesus, Giver of the Spirit
Jesus Freeing from Guilt

Eleventh Fruit: The Equity of His Judgment

Jesus, Truthful Witness
Jesus, Wrathful Judge
Jesus, Glorious Conqueror
Jesus, Adorned Spouse

Twelfth Fruit: The Eternity of His Kingdom

Jesus, King, Son of the King
Jesus, Inscribed Book
Jesus, Fountain-Ray of Light
Jesus, Desired End

Written in Latin around 1260, the Tree of Life became an instant classic, giving rise to many visual representations—first in manuscript miniatures, then in panel paintings and large-scale frescoes, including one by the Florentine artist Taddeo Gaddi.

Gaddi, Taddeo_Tree of Life
Gaddi, Taddeo_Tree of Life (wide shot)

Painted in the mid-fourteenth century in the refectory (dining room) of the Franciscan church of Santa Croce in Florence, the fresco depicts, in its central register, Christ crucified, with twelve scrolls unfurling from the vertical shaft like branches on a tree. On these scrolls, inscribed in Latin, are all the subheadings from Bonaventure’s treatise—IHS EX DEO GENITUS, IHS PREFIGURATUS, and so on, where “IHS” is an abbreviation for the name Jesus. Leafy roundels bear the names of the twelve “fruits,” and others feature busts of prophets.

At the bottom of the cross is the Virgin Mary supported by three other women; St. John the Evangelist; the fresco’s patron, probably Vaggia Manfredi, kneeling in prayer; St. Francis, hugging the cross; St. Bonaventure, writing, “O crux, frutex salvificus, / Vivo fonte rigatus, / Quem flos exornat fulgidus, / Fructus fecundat gratus”; St. Anthony of Padua; St. Dominic; and St. Louis of Toulouse.

LISTEN: “O Crux (Frutex Salvificus)” | Original Latin words by Bonaventure, 13th century; translated into English by James Monti | Music by Elizabeth Duffy | Performed by Sister Sinjin on Incarnation (2016; reissued 2019)

O Cross, salvific stem,
The watering, living fount,
Whose blossom is fragrant,
Whose fruit is longed for.

Jesus, begotten of God,
Jesus foreshadowed,
Jesus sent from heaven,
Jesus born of Mary.

Jesus with the patriarchs,
Jesus shown the magi,
Jesus subject to the law,
Jesus from your kingdom.

Jesus holy in the womb,
Jesus tempted by Satan,
Jesus wondrous in the signs,
Jesus transfigured.

Jesus the good shepherd,
Jesus sprinkled with tears,
Jesus King of the world,
Jesus Sacred Bread.

The Sister Sinjin song “O Crux (Frutex Salvificus)” layers the sixteen subheadings from part 1 of Bonaventure’s Tree of Life, “On the Mystery of His Origin,” with the first stanza of a poem that appears in different forms in the various manuscripts of Bonaventure’s works, including the Tree of Life. Another translation of this refrain’s source text, by José de Vinck, is “O cross, tree bearing the fruit of salvation / Refreshed by a living stream / Your blossom so sweetly scented / Your fruit so worthy of desire.”

Gaddi, Taddeo_Tree of Life (Bonaventure detail)
Detail from Taddeo Gaddi’s Tree of Life. Contemplating the Crucifixion, Bonaventure pens one of his famous poetic lines, “O CRUX FRUTEX SALVIFICUS” (“O cross, tree bearing the fruit of salvation”).

The melody and stylings of the song are evocative of the Middle Ages. Elizabeth Duffy, Kaitlyn Ferry, and Elise Erikson Barrett sing to their own gentle guitar, mandolin, and banjo accompaniment.

For another Advent devotion featuring Sister Sinjin and an even older Italian fresco, see here.

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