Bonaventure’s Tree of Life

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Taddeo Gaddi, “Tree of Life” (1330s)

For personal and professional reasons, I am undertaking the spiritual writings of the thirteenth-century Franciscan theologian, Bonaventure. Why read him? If you care to become naturalized in the Middle Ages, scholar Ewert Cousins makes the case succinctly: “Bonaventure achieved for spirituality what Thomas did for theology and Dante for medieval culture as a whole.”

I deeply admire the architectonic genius of Bonaventure’s writings, which reinforces what C. S. Lewis memorably observed in The Discarded Image: “At his most characteristic, medieval man was not a dreamer nor a wanderer. He was an organizer, a codifier, a builder of systems. He wanted ‘a place for everything and everything in the right place.’ Distinction, definition, tabulation were his delight.”

Consider Bonaventure’s attempts at building a system of spirituality. The Soul’s Journey into God features an edifice structured upon St. Francis’ vision of the Seraph, symbolizing “the six levels of illumination by which, as if by steps or stages, the soul can pass over to peace through ecstatic elevations of Christian wisdom.” The number six also corresponds to six days of divine creation (Genesis 1), six steps that led to the throne of Solomon (3 Kings 10:19), and six wings of the Seraphim which Isaiah saw (Isaiah 6:2).

The Tree of Life features an edifice structured upon the Tree of Life in the earthly paradise of Eden (Genesis 2:9-10) and in St. John’s apocalyptic vision of heavenly paradise  (Revelation 22:1-2), symbolizing Jesus Christ who was nailed to a tree. The bottom four branches describe the Savior’s origin and life, the middle four branches his passion, and the top four branches his glorification. Bonaventure writes:

Picture in your mind a tree whose roots are watered by an ever-flowing foundation that becomes a great and living river with four channels to water the garden of the entire Church. From the trunk of this tree, imagine that there are growing twelve branches that are adorned with leaves, flowers and fruit. Imagine that the leaves are a most effective medicine to prevent and cure every kind of sickness, because the word of the cross is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes (Romans 1:16). Let the flowers be beautiful with the radiance of every color and perfumed with the sweetness of every fragrance, awakening and attracting the anxious hearts of men of desire. Imagine that there are twelve fruits, having every delight and the sweetness of every taste (Wisdom 16:20). This fruit is offered to God’s servants to be tasted so that when they eat, they may always be satisfied, yet never grow weary of its taste. This is the fruit that took its origin from the Virgin’s womb and reached its savory maturity on the tree of the cross under the midday heat of the Eternal Sun, that is, the love of Christ. In the garden of the heavenly paradise – God’s table – the fruit is served to those who desire it. 

“Although this fruit is one and undivided,” according to Bonaventure, “it nourishes devout souls with varied consolations in view of its varied states, excellence, powers and works.” He beautifully arranges the twelve fruit on twelve branches:spanish.JPG

  1. On the first branch the soul devoted to Christ perceives the flavor of sweetness by recalling the distinguished origin and sweet birth of her Savior;
  2. on the second branch, the humble mode of life which he condescended to adopt;
  3. on the third, the loftiness of his perfect power;
  4. on the fourth, the plenitude of his most abundant piety;
  5. on the fifth, the confidence which he had in the trial of his passion;
  6. on the sixth, the patience which he exhibited in bearing great insults and injuries;
  7. on the seventh, the constancy which he maintained in the torture and suffering of his rough and bitter cross;
  8. on the eighth, the victory which he achieved in the conflict and passage of death;
  9. on the ninth, the novelty of his resurrection embellished with remarkable gifts;
  10. on the tenth, the sublimity of his ascension, pouring forth spiritual charisms;
  11. on the eleventh, the equity of the future judgment;
  12. on the twelfth, the eternity of the divine kingdom.

This medieval system of spirituality creates an intense appetite in me to taste that fruit which not only produces well-being in my soul but also nourishes the church.

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Santa Croce Refectory (Florence, Italy): Frescoes of the Last Supper, Tree of Life, and Four Miracles by Taddeo Gaddi

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