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Already  Raimondo Lullo (1233-1315) in one of his works had drawn an “Arbor principiorum et Graduum Medicinae” (picture 1) in a para-scientific field, but it was Bonaventure from  Bagnoregio (1217-1274) who in a poem dedicated to the passion of Christ created the famous “lignum vitae” as carmen figuratum of the Passion (picture 2 in Ms Arundel  83 1, 1300-1320   and picture 3  in “Opera Omnia” T. VIII, Quarracchi 1898) where the cross is interpreted as a mystic tree.

There follows a variety of symbolic picture trees from 1300 to 1600: Arbor virtutum, Arbor viciorum, Arbor amoris, Arbor vitae, Arbor sapientiae, Arbor passionis domini.

Here is an “Arbor amoris” (picture 4) held by the University library of Olmütz with the various stations related to the heavenly hierarchy established by Dyonisius Areopagita (V-VI cent.) in his treatise on “divine names”,  that is, starting from the bottom, mobile (risus), incessabile (continencia), calidum (arbor), acutum (contemplacio), fervidum (liquefacio), superfervidum (defectus), inaccessibile (mentis alienacio), racionis (excecacio).


Another “Arbor amoris”, owned by the university library of Graz (picture 5), has a similar structure.

At the national library of Vienna we find this “Arbor vitae” originating from Tuscany and datable about 1340, which refers to Bonaventure’s Lignum vitae (picture 6) with the praying images of the prophets Enoch and Elias.

One “Arbor Sapientiae” is in possession of the Hessische library of Darmstadt and pictures in fact four trees: at the center, in the upper scrolls, we read “Arbor sapientiae, sic volo, sic jube, sic ayo iure meo, sapientia, santa trinitas” iube/ayo/santa trinitas which is followed, in decreasing order, by the  branches of medieval   philosophy of the Trivium and Quadrivium, that is philosophy (ordinans mundum), grammar (orthographia), logic (argumentum), rhetoric (ratio), music (organum), geometry (trigonus), arithmetic (calculus), astronomy (horospicum ) (picture 7).

Another “Arbor sapientiae” in the national library of Vienna derives its structure from that of Porphyrius’ carmen IX, as do, by the way, almost all the other trees and is reminiscent of the “Arbor philosophiae” by Theodulph of Orleans on the seven liberal arts (picture 8).

One variant of the “Arbor sapientiae” is in possession of the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek of Munich, which owns several more  figural mystic compositions:

“Turris sapientiae, arbor prophetarum, arbor decem legis mandatorum, arbor virtutum etc.” (picture 9).

The Hessische Landesbibliothek  of Darmstadt has an “Arbor passionis domini”, which bears in the upper scrolls the series of the stations of the Passion: “Christus Pilato traditus, flagellatus, crucem portans, crucificsus, emittens spiritum, de cruce depositus, sepultus” and in the left-hand scrolls the monastic hours: matutina, prima, tertia, sexta, nona, vespera, completorium” (picture 10).

Other two variants of the “Arbor passionis”  are at the Munich library and at Vienna’s national library. The latter, by far the more elegant, in a flowery gothic style, is based on the image of a slender tree with sprays like those of the vine. The captions referring to the seven monastic hours into which the Passion was divided and the corresponding stations are well preserved (pictures 11 and 12).

At the library of the diocesan seminar of Reggio Emilia there is the “Liber Figurarum”, a manuscript of the XIII century, by Gioachino da Fiore ( 1130 – 1202 where a “second tree of mankind, from Adam to Christ’s second coming” illustrates Gioachino’s own cyclical conception of history, distinguished into  three ages, corresponding to the establishment of the reigns of each of the three persons of the Trinity. (Picture 13).

On the subject of the Arbor, Samuel Norton in his “Alchymiae complementum et perfectio” of 1630, offers this “Arbor philosophica generalis seu universalis, indicans pręparationes corporum tam perfectorum quam imperfectorum” which is, in a word, a treatise of alchemic chemistry (picture 14).

Finally here is the tree of life by Leonhart Thurneisser zum Thurn entitled “Quinta essentia” (1574) on a similar subject. (picture 15).

Nor can we ignore, finally, that the floor of the cathedral of Otranto,  consecrated in 1088, is completely covered in its three naves by a gigantic mosaic, of 1165, picturing three trees, the largest, the central one, standing on an elephant,  whose branches totally occupy the space of the church, a masterpiece in which Christian themes merge with the myths of  Germanic origin.

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