Tree of Life (Árbol de la vida) (aka. Protestant tapestry)

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Tree of Life (Árbol de la vida) (aka. Protestant tapestry)
This is a singular tapestry known as the ‘Tree of Life’. It is considered ‘Protestant’ both for its theme and because it is based on works by the painter Lucas Cranach, a friend and collaborator of Martin Luther. However, the representation does not include any obvious attribute of the Reformation that is incompatible with Catholicism. It could thus hang unobtrusively in the cathedral of Palencia, where it has hung since at least 1686.

Old and New Testament

Almost square in format, the tapestry is framed with a wide border of fruits, flowers and leaves of vivid colours. A tree splits it into two parts that refer to two worlds: the Old Testament and the New Testament. The tree, leafless on its left side, suggests the past occurring before the arrival of Christ.

It starts out with the creation of the world – God the Father is between the Sun and the Moon – and shows Adam and Eve, who succumb to temptation and are expelled, not by an Angel, but by Death. The Fall of Man entails a long process of redemption, set in motion by the alliance of God with His people through the delivery of the Law to Moses, who is shown praying on Mount Horeb, with the tablets in the foreground. But the Law is not enough to redeem Man: the intervention of Christ is needed.

The central scene shows a naked man – nudity symbolised Original Sin – who turns his back on Moses and towards the crucified Saviour. The man is accompanied by Saint John the Baptist, the last of the prophets, and by Saint Paul, who both show the Christ to him, placed to the right of the tree, blossoming on this side. Other scenes, such as the Annunciation or the Resurrection, allude to the arrival and sacrifice of Jesus Christ to save Humanity.


Salvation

The theological interpretation of this scene links it to the cycle of salvation. Man fallen from grace can only be saved by the arrival of Christ. This is an aspect highlighted by Luther, who also insists on the supreme value of faith over works. This seems to be the theme of the panel. It could be considered Catholic since justification through faith also appears in the writings of Saint Paul. However, the fact that the tapestry follows a 1529 painting by Lucas Cranach the Elder, The Law and the Gospel (Gotha, Schloss Friedenstein), who also made the stamp illustrating the second volume of Luther’s Bible in 1541, very similar to this tapestry, suggests that the cartoon was the work of an artist related to the Reformation.


Marking the origin

Two Bs flanking an escutcheon, B▼B, the mark of Brussels in Brabant, appear in the selvage of the lower right-hand side. These indicate that the tapestry was woven in Brussels workshops, probably in the 1530s.


References

A. González Lamadridm “¿Un tapiz luterano en la catedral de Palencia?”, Publicaciones de la Institución Tello Téllez de Meneses, Vol. 35 (1975), pp. 33-54


Title 'Tree of Life'

Manufacture Brussels workshops, c. 1530-1540

Fabric Gold, silk and wool

Size270 x 266 cm

Location Cathedral of Palencia

On display Transept, left side



MAZ



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