Petrus Christus’ The Madonna of the Dry Tree

by Christine Cariati

And all the trees of the field shall know that I the Lord have brought down the high tree, have exalted the low tree, have dried up the green tree, and have made the dry to tree to flourish.

Ezekiel 17:24

Petrus Christus, Madonna of the Dry Tree, c. 1465
Oil on oak
Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

This diminutive painting, a mere 5 3/4 x 4 7/8 inches, makes an enormous impact. The iconography, unique in Netherlandish painting, has a magical quality—the Virgin and Child, standing in the fork of a barren tree, glow, jewel-like, against a dark background. Normally, in paintings of the period, Mary and Jesus are bathed in an all-encompassing Divine Light—here they shimmer in the shadows.

Flemish painter Petrus Christus (c. 1410/20-1472/75), born near Antwerp in Baerle-Duc (now Barrle-Hertog), was active in Bruges. The Madonna of the Dry Tree was likely commissioned for personal devotion by a wealthy member of the Confraternity of Our Lady of the Dry Tree, a group to which Christus and his wife belonged from 1450-1463.

There are so many interesting aspects to this tiny painting, symbolism abounds. The Tree of Knowledge, withered and dry after Adam and Eve ate of its fruit, comes to life through the Virgin. The Virgin, herself the miraculous product of the barren Anne, in turn gives birth via the Immaculate Conception. The dry tree presages the crown of thorns, representing Christ’s sacrifice for man’s redemption. Another fascinating element of this painting are the 15 golden ‘A’s that hang from the thorns of the tree. These represent Ave Maria, the Hail Mary prayer of the rosary. Ave is the reverse of Eva, or Eve—a reminder that Eve’s fall is redeemed through Mary, the new Eve, who is not only the mother of Christ but the intercessor for all mankind.

There are only about six paintings by Petrus Christus that are signed and accorded definitive attribution. Christus’ debt to his predecessors Jan van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden is often cited, and perhaps he never did rise to their level of genius. Nonetheless, I find his works to have an intense, quiet charm and power—each one stamped with a unique sensibility that blazes across five hundred and fifty years of art history.

Wider Connections:
Petrus Christus: Renaissance Master of Bruges
by Maryan W. Ainsworth

8 Responses to “Petrus Christus’ The Madonna of the Dry Tree

  1. This is quite fantastic, especially with the Gothic “A’s” dangling off the thorny branches, as if the fruit of all knowledge, in the end, is simply an expression of the divine. Thanks for posting this.

    • Christine Cariati Says:

      Thanks for your interesting comment, I’m glad the painting hit such a deep chord with you too. It is truly original and imaginative, the layers of meaning resonate. And it does seem to be a painting with true religious feeling, doesn’t it? Also have the sense that during its years of use as the focus of private devotions, it took on even more meaning.

  2. Thank you for this gorgeous image. I love the connection between the image of the dry and barren tree and the crown of thorns.

    • Christine Cariati Says:

      I agree. A beautiful and powerful image that’s lingered in my mind for decades since I first saw it.

  3. As you just said, this painting does not seem to match to the standards of the period. I remark particularly the talent of Petrus Christus as a colourist and the way he enhances the blue tunic of the Virgin. The blue is only a small touch even if it’s important, as an attribute of the Virgin. But it takes the central place and catches the eye, with this dark background….
    I’m also glad to know that this painting is in the Thyssen Museum in Madrid because I plan to visit an exhibition there about Domenico Ghirlandaio.
    So I’ll tell you my impression after I’ll have seen it in real !
    Kind regards from Southern France.

    • Christine Cariati Says:

      Yes, please do send your impressions. So fortunate you get to see the Ghirlandaio too.
      Don’t forget to look for their Watteau Pierrot. And they have a two-sided Memling—a portrait on one side, still-life on the reverse.
      Have a wonderful trip.

  4. Lovely to find this – I read of it in a travel book and was very excited to find a picture on the internet.

    One correction to your commentary – Mary did not give birth “through the Immaculate Conception”. To call conception “immaculate” implies that sex is dirty, something the Church does not teach! “Immaculate Conception” refers to the fact that when Mary herself was conceived, she did not have the stain of original sin that other humans had – that God had already destined her to be the mother of Jesus and so did not have pure Jesus in a sin-stained body. Mary gave birth to Jesus through Divine Intervention (the Holy Spirit coming upon her, as opposed to human sexual intercourse). Sorry to be pedantic, but this is one of the mis-used phrases – even by many Catholics! – that is one of my truest pet peeves!

    Again, thank you for posting this picture – I am looking forward to looking at others on your blog.

  5. Deborah wadsworth Says:

    I would like to know where I can get a poster of this painting. Thanks.i

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