A journey through iconographic history: from Eden to eternity

Its iconographic history has its roots in Genesis, with the tree of life standing luxuriant in the Garden of Eden, together with the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Following Adam and Eve’s exile from Eden, the tree of life becomes symbol of a lost eternal life, but also of hope and redention, and the promise of a new existence in Paradise.

A journey through cultures and symbols

The origin of the symbol of the tree of life dates back to the IX century BCE: in some Assyrian bas reliefs found in Mesopotamia, it is evident how King Ashurbanipal II was connected to the wealth and fertility represented by the tree. In Egypt, the Pharaoh—who was considered a deity—was often depicted as the trunk of the tree of life, with its branches arranged in a radial pattern. The tree is associated to the shape of the Nile delta, source of life and prosperity, and is considered a bridge between the earth and heaven.

In the Greek civilisation, the tree of life overlaps with the myth of tree bearing golden apples in the Garden of the Hesperides. According to the tale, Heracles, emblem of strenght and courage, was able to steal three golden apples after slaying Ladon, a fearsome serpent-like monster with a hundred heads.

The essential elements of the Tree of Life

The tree’s physical features hold symbolic value: let’s see what they are!

• The roots: deep and spreading, they represent attachment to the earth, traditions, and family, and symbolise the stability, strength, and nourishment we receive from our history and our origins;

• The trunk: robust and sturdy, it represents strength, resilience, and perseverance, and the ability to overcome adversity and stand firm in front of life’s challenges;

• The foliage: leafy and luxuriant, it represents growth and the desire to reach for the sky and connect with the divine. It symbolises hope, enlightenment, and achievement of one’s own potential;

• The fruits: gifts of life and promise of a better future. They represent abundance, prosperity, and regeneration.

The Tree of Life: an immortal symbol

The tree of life has a rich past that spans centuries, and has inspired numerous artists and cultures. In 1133 CE we find it embroidered on King Roger II‘s mantle: two lions, each attacking a camel on either side of a palm tree, alluding to the Normans’ victory over the Arabs. Here the palm tree represents the tree of life as a symbol of triumph and prosperity.

The tree of life remains an interesting motif recurring in art throughout the Renaissance, and appears in works by artists such as Mantegna and Leonardo da Vinci.
It’s in the XX century that it finds its highest artistic expression with Gustav Klimt: his “Tree of Life“, painted between 1905 and 1909, is an iconic artwork embodying love, rebirth, and life energy.

Other relevant examples in art history:

Mosaics of Norman Palace and Monreale Cathedral: the tree at the centre of the fountain connects water to life;
Basilica of San Clemente, Rome: the tree of life merges with the cross, symbol of the new source of life;
Taddeo Gaddi’s frescoes: the tree as Christ’s cross, with scenes of his life on the branches;
Stained glass window in Chartres cathedral: Jesse Tree represents Christ’s genealogy;
Sidi Sayyed Mosque, Ahmedabad: the tree of life as a stone motif in the window.

Throughout the centuries, the tree of life has been depicted in numerous ways and has taken different connotations. With its elements and symbols, and its wealth of meaning, this image accompanies us through life.

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