The Tree of Life

Oil on canvas
Museo Regional de Guadalupe, Mexico

In the earliest churches in Mexico the yard before the west façade would feature a stone cross incised with symbols of the Passion substituting for a corpus. This work alludes to that tradition by festooning a "stone" cross with grapevines and topping it with the crown of thorns. The vines bear both flowers and fruit, and two of their branches grow into the hearts of Adam and Eve, referencing Jesus' words to his disciples, "I am the vine: you the branches" (John 15:5).

Coiled around the bottom of the cross, the serpent bears a female face, as in some late medieval and Renaissance images. It whispers into the ear of Eve, who imagines herself in finery in response to his suggestion, "you shall be as Gods, knowing good and evil" (Genesis 3:5). A skeleton huddles against her on her right, suggestive of the truth behind the serpent's words.

However, the Adam and Eve we see in the center register represent not the fallen sinners of Genesis 3 but humanity as redeemed by the Cross. Around their waists they wear the same flowered vines that circle the cross, and they stand in an attitude of prayer. Directly above Eve is the Angel Gabriel, who made the Annunciation to her antitype, One who is foreshadowed by or identified with an earlier symbol or type, such as a figure in the New Testament who has a counterpart in the Old. the Virgin Mary. And above Adam is St. Michael the Archangel, who vanquished Satan. A third angel stands behind Michael, probably St. Raphael, who brought healing and life in the story of Tobit and Sara.

Thus, the whole of the middle register testifies to the saving power of the Cross. Above it, two saints with well-known stories exemplify what Christ has done for human individuals through the years. On the left, St. Christopher learns of how Jesus is heavy with the weight of the world; on the right, St. Hyacinth saves the Blessed Sacrament and the statue of the Madonna from the burning church. Between them, the Father and the Holy Spirit preside over the cross, as they do in the Throne of Mercy sculptures that are still common in the older churches in Mexico.

The artist does get around to including a corpus, on the crucifix pictured on one of the medallions on the cross; the other medallion pictures the Immaculate Conception, which is particularly relevant to Adam and Eve, who were both conceived sinless but then imprinted Original Sin on their descendants.

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Read more about images of Adam and Eve.
Read more about the Throne of Mercy in Europe and in Mexico.
Read more about images of crosses and crucifixes, the Immaculate Conception, the Annunciation, St. Michael, St. Raphael, St. Christopher, and St. Hyacinth.

Photographed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art by Richard Stracke, shared under Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license.