By Mary Hollis and Lauren Simpson

This diagram presents the events of Christ's life along with scriptural citations and prompts for meditation in the form of a tree. The diagram was inspired by St. Bonaventure's Lignum vitae, a thirteenth-century text meant to aid the devout in conforming themselves to Christ through meditation on the events of his life, passion, and glorification.

The diagrammatic tree has twelve branches and twelve fruits, each presenting a different mystery from the life of Christ. Beneath the tree are two rows of verses from both the Old and New Testaments. One row features tree imagery, while the other contains passages alluding to Christ's death. A verse from Revelation serves as the root of the tree itself, suggesting a link between the Edenic tree in Genesis and the cross of the Gospels. The designer of the diagram also linked the events of Christ's life inscribed on tree itself with Old Testament verses prefiguring them. These latter are found in the lobes on the margins. In pairing the events of Christ's career with their Old Testament prefigurations, the designer of the diagram went a step beyond St. Bonaventure, who did not have a broader exegetical program in mind when he composed his text. The Tree of Life as it appears in Beinecke MS 416 concretely depicts the essential unity of the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian Gospels, illustrating how ancient prophecies have become the fruit of the new dispensation.

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The Tree Of Life
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Figure 1

The clover-shaped base of the Lignum vitae contains a text from Revelation 22:2, "And on both sides of the river was the tree of life, bearing twelve fruits, yielding its fruits every month: the leaves of the tree for the healing of the nations." The tree image in the diagram can be seen as an illustration of this text. The passage describing the tree of life to come, combined with the Edenic tree alluded to in one of the marginal lobes and the cross itself, with its twelve fruits of meditation on the life of Christ, links past, present, and future in one life-giving tree.

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Figure 1

 

Figure 2

In the medieval tradition, the female pelican was thought to accidentally kill her young by striking them, mourning them for three days before piercing her body and letting her blood spill over the dead chicks, thus reviving them. The bird became linked in learned and popular imagination with Christ, who was assaulted by his people, then was pierced and bled to save them.

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Figure 3

The text here is from Ecclesiasticus 24:13-14, "I was exalted like a cedar in Lebanon, and as a cypress tree, a palm tree, an olive tree." This reference to the trees of sacred scripture is suggestive of Christ, who would be "lifted up so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life." (John 3: 14, 15) Here, as elsewhere in the diagram, the Old Testament is shown to be fulfilled in Christ.

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This text referred to here is Ezekiel 47:12, "Their fruit shall serve for food, and their leaves for medicine." This description comes from the prophet's vision of the New Temple in the New Israel, and it is suggestive of a similar tree in John's vision of the New Jerusalem in Revelation 22:2 represented at the base of the diagram. St. Bonaventure taught that the medicinal fruit of the Lignum vitae is Christ himself.

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Figure 4