“And the angel shewed me a river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding from the throne of God and of the Lamb. In the midst of the street thereof, 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 angel on f. 82v has seized John by the wrist as if to catch his full attention about the complex vision depicted on the facing page.
Discreetly suggested on f. 78, the theme of the river of life lined by life-saving trees is dealt with here in not a descriptive but a symbolic manner inspired largely by the gloss. Its author recalls that the tree of life was given to Adam in the earthly paradise. He continues his comparison with Genesis by assimilating this tree to the tree of knowledge of good and evil whose forbidden fruit caused suffering, old age and death to enter the world along with original sin. But by his redeeming death on the cross, Christ himself became the tree of life, a role in which his mystical body plays a part, in other words, the Church built upon the twelve apostles. Furthermore, the tree bears fruit every month, “in other words, continuously, for whereas Christ represents the year, the apostles represent the twelve months”. Like round fruit, their haloed heads, plus a thirteenth – that of St Paul, the apostle of the Gentiles – added by the illuminator, appear amongst the foliage. They are laid out, in an arrangement reminiscent of the tree of Jesse, around the end bud occupied by a bust of Christ shown with a veil, strangely enough, and a cruciform nimbus.
Pointing at the tree are Moses on the left and St John on the right. The two men engage in a sort of typological dialogue: the lawmaker and symbol of the Old Covenant holds a phylactery bearing the quotation from Genesis (Gen. 2: 9): Lignum vite in medio paradisi // the tree of life also in the midst of paradise, whilst the other, representing the New Testament, bears the respective verse from the Apocalypse: Lignum vite afferens fructus .xii. per singulos menses // the tree of life, bearing twelve fruits, yielding its fruits every month.
To emphasise the image of Eden, the artist has depicted the river of Paradise as Gehon, Phison, Tigris and the Euphrates, like small figures pouring out the contents of their phials. These four rivers in medallions in the corners of the composition are a traditional iconography of the evangelists.
The resulting layout of the illustration of this passage is a catechistic summary: the symbolic tree is a combination of the tree of knowledge that the tempter snake coils around to entice Adam and Eve, and the tree of Life: the body of Christ the Redeemer offered as food in the Eucharist by the ministry of the Church.
Marie-Thérèse Gousset and Marianne Besseyre
Centre de Recherche sur les Manuscrits Enluminés, Bibliothèque nationale de France
Fragment of the commentary volume of The Apocalypse of 1313