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  • Saint Giovanni of Capestrano in the Artistic Representations of the Franciscan Family Tree
  • Giuseppe Cassio (bio)

The present work proposes to investigate, through an analysis of certain artistic works, the reasons that led Giovanni of Capestrano to be included, or not included, in the Franciscan family tree. After engaging the same theme with respect to the early martyrs of the Order of Friars Minor,1 and, more recently, the representation of Saint Louis of Toulouse in the subject under investigation,2 this investigation of the figure of the friar from Abruzzo represents a further opportunity to propose certain artistic examples - and doing so without any pretense of an exhaustive presentation, in light of the limits of space allowed here - in the hopes of proposing a path for future research that might be followed in later investigations.

At the 'Roots' of the Tree

This is certainly not the place to fully explore the richness of the symbolic references captured in the Franciscan family tree, but it is perhaps useful to offer a brief introduction in order to frame the reading of the artistic evidence we will later analyze.3

The principal source at the foundation of this investigation comes from Sacred Scripture, with particular reference to the book of Genesis, in which the tree of knowledge appears for the first time, planted at the center of Paradise - both the cause for mankind's expulsion and the [End Page 233] source for the construction of the cross of Golgotha,4 that is, the tree which reconciles God and humankind, and thereby becomes the source of 'new' life, the Arbor vitae, of the newfound 'earthly' Paradise.5 In the figurative arts, the tree is symbolically associated with the mystery of life. And by virtue of its origins, it thus marks the border with the beyond, very often evoking its cosmic character by reaching its top to the heavens, its roots down to the abyss.6

From this tradition emerged in the Middle Ages one of the most widely spread allegories of the family tree, namely the family of David, better known as the tree of Jesse, founder of the messianic lineage, who sleeps softly while a true and proper trunk rises out of his chest and rises to the heights, gathering among its branches the earthly ancestors of Christ. The presence of the Virgin Mary, who 'germinates' as the ultimate fruit at the height of the genealogical tree of the Davidic line, alludes to the Immaculate Conception and to her divine origins. In that sense it outlines the iconography that is typically encountered at the top of the tree, where the Madonna, with the dove of the Holy Spirit [End Page 234] above her, (fig. 1) appears with the child among the branches (fig. 2) or sometimes alone, in her classic humble and contemplative manner, her eyes cast downward and her hands clasping her breast. The latter is in keeping with the printed Immaculist iconography so dear to Sixtus IV (1471-84), which inspired Matteo da Gualdo (1430 / 1435-1507) in his composition of the painting depicting the Tree of Jesse with Joachim, Anne, and Immaculate Mary commissioned in 1497 and preserved in the Museo Civico Rocca Flea Gualdo Tadino (fig. 3).7 The scriptural foundation of the tree of Jesse is a passage from the prophet Isaiah: 'Et egredietur virga de radice Iesse, et flos de radice eius ascendet. Et requiescet super eum spiritus Domini',8 in which Jesse, a descendant of Boaz, was the father of David, from whom descends the chain of the ancestors of Christ. By explaining that the virga arising from Jesse represents the Virgin, and that her flower is Christ,9 St. Ambrose inspired artists to use the allegory of the tree to make quite clear that Jesus belongs to the house of David, and to illustrate the mystery of Mary understood as a new Eve. At the same time, the tree serves to illustrate in a symbolic register the eschatological vision of the Apocalypse, which frequently alludes in a concealed manner to the mystery of the Immaculate Conception that is enthroned at the top of the tree, above the Old Testament kings - a reference to the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1945-9718
Print ISSN
0080-5459
Pages
pp. 233-273
Launched on MUSE
2017-11-17
Open Access
No
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