Artwork showcases Jesus' lineage - Catholic Courier
A Jesse Tree, which illustrates the lineage of Jesus, adorns the ceiling of St. Ann Church in Hornell. A Jesse Tree, which illustrates the lineage of Jesus, adorns the ceiling of St. Ann Church in Hornell.

Artwork showcases Jesus’ lineage

HORNELL — Since the beginning of his organ-playing days at St. Ann Church some 60 years ago, John Bartell has frequently claimed the closest seat in the house to a striking piece of art.

St. Ann’s Jesse Tree, which depicts Jesus’ genealogy, stretches out in a long rectangle across the spacious church’s ceiling, beginning over the altar and ending just above the choir loft near the pipe organ.

"You can’t help but look at it," Bartell remarked.

Many Catholics are familiar with Jesse Trees as a popular Advent custom. Chiefly geared toward children, they involve Christmas trees being decorated with symbols and ornaments to depict the people, prophecies and events leading to Jesus’ birth.

At St. Ann, on the other hand, all those aspects are available in far greater detail, all year long.

"Jesse Tree" derives its name from Isaiah 11:1: "And there shall come forth a rod out of the root of Jesse and a flower shall rise up out of his root." This quotation from the Douay-Rheims Bible is reproduced on St. Ann’s ceiling at the beginning of the tree, which also contains an image of Jesse of Bethlehem and the inscription "Radix Jesse." ("Radix" is Latin for "root.")

Next on the tree comes Jesse’s son King David, part of the royal line from which Jesus descended. Extending over the church’s pews are depictions of other ancestors in Jesus’ family tree, all of whom were kings as well: Solomon, Roboam (or Rehoboam) and Abias (or Abijam/Abijah). Mixed in among these figures are names and images of various prophets who foretold the coming of Jesus.

Skipping numerous generations, the Jesse Tree’s next historic figure is of St. Ann, the mother of Mary and the Hornell church’s patron saint. An image of St. Ann Church’s exterior is shown next to the saint.

Following St. Ann is, of course, the Virgin Mary, who is shown striking a triumphant pose. The tree ends with an image of the baby Jesus, encircled by the Latin words for the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit as listed in Isaiah 11:2-3: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety and fear of the Lord. On the outside of the circle are the names and images of the four Gospel writers: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

St. Ann Church is located at 31 Erie Ave. in downtown Hornell. The parish was founded in 1869 and is part of Our Lady of the Valley Parish, along with St. Mary Church in Rexville. St Ann’s Jesse Tree was completed in 1934 as part of a massive architectural overhaul that saw two separate buildings — the church and an addition — combined into one.

Serving as designer of the Jesse Tree was Harold W. Rambusch of the renowned Rambusch Decorating Co. in New York City. In an article he wrote for the Catholic Courier upon completion of the project, Rambusch described the Jesse Tree artwork as "extending like a midrib through the whole length of the church," calling the tree "the backbone of the decorative scheme, which cannot fail but lead the eye to the altar and the services."

In 1969 the Jesse Tree — which had originally been painted in watercolors — was redone in oils, maintaining its soft tones of blue, red, gold and green. It remains a stunning work to this day, having been unaffected by a church fire in 2004. The tree has now graced the church for 80 years.

"It’s been here my entire life," said Bartell, 75, who began playing the organ at St. Ann during Christmas Masses in 1954 and has been the church’s part-time organist since 1968.

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