Walking from home and then back again on pilgrimage each year, I visit ancient Christian sites across Britain. However, it is in my local town of Abergavenny in south Wales that I have the opportunity to see one of the most extraordinary pieces of sculpture to survive from the Middle Ages, the Jesse Tree at St Mary’s Priory. Often calling in at this church at the very start or close to the end of my annual walks, I am very fortunate to then be able to spend a short time admiring this magnificent artwork, which is unique in Britain.
Carved as a whole from the trunk of an oak tree, the bearded Jesse lies asleep whilst an angel tenderly guards his pillow; meanwhile, a branch is shown coming out from the folds of his garments around his waist.
But, however historic and interesting the Jesse Tree may seem, what can be seen in Abergavenny today is only the lowest section of what would have originally been about twenty-five feet in height; Jesse’s descendants, culminating in Jesus, would have been depicted above him to show the family tree of the Saviour.
It is also thought that the sculpture as a whole would have been richly painted, with just hints of pigment still being visible. Sadly, though, as a religious image it would have been seen as idolatrous by the Protestant reformers of the sixteenth century and it was destroyed at around this time, although at least Jesse himself has survived.
A verse, which can be found in the Old Testament book of Isaiah, speaks of Jesse and is often included in readings from the Bible at Advent. But who was the person whose image we can see, very appropriately in wood, in this small Welsh town?
We are first introduced to him in connection with the prophet, Samuel, who has been told by God to seek a new king for God’s people. Perhaps rather improbably, the prophet is sent to the unassuming town of Bethlehem, the home of Jesse and his seven sons.
All the brothers are brought before Samuel as prospective rulers. Finally, the youngest son, David, who has been away on the hillsides tending the family’s sheep, is chosen and anointed as the new monarch in what must have been a very unpredictable turn of events. Later marrying the daughter of the previous king, David is shown as very aware of his family’s humble origins.
Jesus if often referred to as the Son of David but he was also from the stock of Jesse and a branch growing out of his roots; and as we look forward to Christmas, and the story of a child born in Bethlehem to a couple of very modest means who were themselves descendants of Jesse, it seems important to dwell on how God brings salvation through one who may seem to be of little account.
An oak tree, probably felled in the mid-fifteenth century, enables us to still see and admire the figure of Jesse, carved in wood, in a south Wales town. How much more can we wonder at his descendant, the baby in the manger, who is born anew amongst us each year.