Girona Beatus

Girona Beatus f. 147v, The metaphor of the palm tree


f. 147v, The metaphor of the palm tree

When writing the exegesis of the righteous, Beatus of Liébana mentioned the palm leaves they hold – “palmas in manibus eorum”. This led him to interrupt the transcription of Tyconius’s commentary on the Apocalypse and introduce a digression, taken from St Gregory’s Moralia in Iob, which compares a saint’s life to a palm tree because the bottom of this tree is rough but its fruit-laden top is attractive. Hence, the life of the righteous on earth is full of tribulations but, upon entering Paradise, it widens out due to the great rewards. The palm tree is narrower where it starts at ground level but strong at the level of its branches and fruit; the righteous are not strong in earthly but in spiritual tasks. The image, situated on the verso of the folio, covers it completely with the representation of a schematic and extremely decorative tree at the base of which, acting as roots, are two split canes joined together from which a trunk arises and stretches up into a crown of large, colourful and ornamental abstract branches with fruit at the end. Clutching the trunk is a naked man with the following words alongside: “u[bi] hic omo cupiens crapulare/palme” (To this man who seeks to take his fill of the fruit of the palm tree). In his right hand is a pruning knife and a piece of the rope threaded through a hook nailed to the trunk, which he grasps with his foot, supporting another man dressed in a loincloth situated on the left of the composition. The text above reads “et his alter iubamine porrigit p[er] fune” (And this other one helps him clamber up using the rope). The two figures enrich the meaning of the commentary by Beatus of Liébana, representing both the body (the man climbing the tree) and the soul (the one helping him) moving upwards, with the rope symbolising the Holy Trinity and the palm tree, Christ. The dressed person (religion) helps the naked man (those seeking salvation after death) in his ascension towards Glory – understood to be a perfect state of bliss – based in any case upon a doctrinal rather than an apocalyptic concept incorporated in the form of passages inspired by other sources, possibly by St Gregory the Great in the lines: “Ascendam in palmam et apprehendam fructus eius”. Hence the Gerona Beatus involves a semantic shift changing the meaning of the palm tree from symbolizing the righteous to becoming a Christological image. The palm tree is consequently a figuration of Christ, of his cross, to which the soul ascends to harvest its fruit.

This image and the mappa mundi are the only ones in the original version to be based directly on the explanatio rather than on the storia, and are consequently depicted without a frame in virtually all Beatus. There are however differences amongst the manuscripts in stemmata I and II. The palm tree is represented in the former simply as a schematic tree with its roots uncovered, a stylised trunk and leafy crown, as described in the text. Stemma II embellishes the scene by adding people. There are also differences between branch IIa – which situates the image in part of a column of text and shows the righteous, sometimes holding palm leaves, flanking the tree, thereby combining the two elements (the palm tree and the chosen ones) associated in Beatus’s exegesis – and IIb in which this image covers the entire folio or much of it. Basically it shows, by means of a scene of pagan origin which is nevertheless in keeping with St Gregory’s metaphoric discourse, fruit being harvested and a man brandishing a pruning hook to cut it down – only the Gerona Beatus and its copy depict the assistant – in a manner more in line with the doctrinal aspect mentioned above, which must have featured in the prototype of branch IIb, as demonstrated by the Las Huelgas Beatus (f. 85r), on the assumption that it is a copy of the Tábara Beatus. This branch depicts the text more accurately for it shows narrow roots, whilst the roots in IIa spread out to create a strip of ground upon which the group of chosen ones stand.

Neither this painting, nor the mappa mundi, would have formed part of the Tyconian archetype assumed to have been the basis for the images illustrating the Apocalypse cycle. The form of the palm tree employs a Muslim prototype and the harvesting motif is also based on Islamic models to be found in similar scenes in Arabian ivories. Date harvests appear in contemporary ivories from Cordova such as one on a Hispano-Islamic chest (Braga, Cathedral Museum) , along with other celebration motifs such as musicians, goblet-bearers and peacocks. Dr. Shepherd considers the palm tree in the Gerona Beatus to be based on an Islamic iconography of heaven that encompasses the tasks and tree of life.

Carlos Miranda García-Tejedor
Doctor in History
(Fragment of the Girona Beatus commentary volume)

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