A ramble to Paradise


This is a meandering exploration of some mysterious and hazy symbols – the River and Tree – with the Fruit and Leaves which that Tree, or Trees, provide – and the City (or is it a Garden, or a Temple?) from which that meandering River flows.

The object of this wandering by the stream is to establish, for myself, a way of thinking about a musical project, a project which would also involve trying to see the world, through which those waters might or might not flow, in a different light.

These symbols, or images, are probably most familiar from the New Testament Apocalypse or Revelation of St John, but that is just one reflection of these multi-faceted themes. They are not fixed and solid things.

These are living symbols. They are not ciphers which simply mean something, and can be decoded or translated. They are ways of understanding, bringing into our imaginations, and in touch with our feelings, things which, if we were to define them, would become abstract and remote.

They can be seen through many different glasses, each changing the perspective, colouring, even transforming something we thought was a tree into a golden candlestick, or something we thought was a City into a small secret space. These things may seem far away and to belong to distant cultures with different ways of seeing, but I am looking, to begin with, through the lens of a medieval poet who might have lived close to my home town of Stafford. This anonymous poet is unusual for his or her time in being rooted in this world, writing about real landscapes.

This enigmatic 14th century poet is known either as “The Gawain Poet” or “The Pearl Poet” after his two major works.  Either name can be used, and there is always a possibility that they were two different people. The two poems are startlingly different in style and form, but both survive in the same manuscript, with two smaller poems, and both, though so different on most ways, have 101 verses. This may be a coincidence, or it may suggest that the author wanted them to be seen as linked in some way.

I am taking it for granted that he (or she) was one poet and the two poems are meant to be seen together. I don’t know why this should be. Are there connections? Common themes? Certainly, both are about journeys. In “Gawain and the Green Knight”, the most well-known of the two works, the hero makes a long winter journey through a wild and very realistic landscape. In “Pearl”, which is most relevant to this wandering, the narrator makes a dream journey, following a river, towards a vision of the New Jerusalem.  I like to think that, if we see the poems as a pair, this visionary landscape of Pearl seems closer to the vividly real world of Gawain, the other side of the coin.




The only manuscript source of the poems of the Pearl Poet was once part of the collection of Sir Robert Cotton (1571-1631), whose library also included the Lindisfarne Gospels. The library was damaged by fire in 1731 and later left to the nation by Sir Robert’s descendant Sir John Cotton.

In Sir Robert’s library the books were houses in cases, each of which was marked by the bust of a Caesar, or a Roman Lady. The collection is still kept in this order at the British Library, so the works of the Gawain poet are catalogued as “Cotton Nero A. x.”

There are four poems in the manuscript – Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl and two shorter poems on biblical themes, Patience and Cleanness. The actual manuscript appears to have been copied by a scribe, or more than one scribe, who might have imposed his own dialect on the language. The two longer poems are illustrated by coloured pictures which are rather amateurish in style, but give us an interesting view of how a fourteenth century artist imagined the scenes in the poems.


The language of the poems is affected by local dialect and is usually said to be from the North West of England. This means the language is much further removed from modern standard English than Chaucer, writing at about the same time, whose south eastern dialect became dominant. The question is where might this “North West” be?

The general opinion, based on the kind of dialect words that are used by the poet, is that he came from North West Staffordshire or South Cheshire. Perhaps this judgement is affected by the idea that Sir Gawain and the Green Knight mentions places in the North West, as Gawain’s journey takes him from Wales and across the water into the Wirral. Furthermore, the adventure of the Green Chapel, where the contest with the Green Knight takes place, has become associated with the landscape of the Dane Valley on the Staffordshire and Cheshire border, especially the dramatic rocky feature of Lud’s Church, which is hidden in the forest on the Staffordshire banks of the river.

Some writers have suggested that the poet was connected with the Earl of Chester, whose lands lay in that part of the world.

The identification of the landscape with the Dane Valley is extremely convincing but, as far as I am aware, none of the various commentators on the poem make what seems to me to be a very important point. To the poet, and the hero of the story, this landscape is somewhere far away and strange. Surely this implies that the poet knew this place, but it was far away and strange to him? He might have known the place, as strange and alien, if he had been a visitor to the nearby Dieulacres Abbey or Swythamley Hall.

I suggest that the anonymous author knew this area but did not come from there. Could he have come from slightly further south? Is there a case for claiming the Pearl Poet for Stafford?


Marie Borroff, of Yale University, who specialised in the Gawain Poet, simply says the poet came from “near Stafford” in the introduction to her translation published in 1967. This is rather vague, but does push the poet southwards. The question is, though, what does “near Stafford” mean to someone used to the enormous distances of America?

H N Duggan, in “A Companion to the Gawain Poet” (Boydell and Brewer, 1998), a very thorough study of all kinds of aspects of the poet and his works, makes the case that the language of the poem is from further south than the large area of “North West Staffordshire/ South Cheshire”. He places the poet in Staffordshire itself. I can only assume that this must mean that the language does not fix the poet as far north as the moorlands, but how much further south does one have to go to detect a change in the language? Presumably the evidence of local differences in dialect in the 14th century is limited.

If this is the case perhaps Marie Borroff’s “near Stafford” is justified.

Even now the Dane Valley seems a long way from Stafford. It’s about 34 miles away, but north of Stone the land rises and the moorlands landscape begins. It would have been a long day’s ride in the fourteenth century, but business at Swythamley Hall or Dieulacres might have occasionally taken a clerk, a gentleman or secretary, there. Editors think the poet was not in holy orders, though familiar with theology.

The landscape of the Dane Valley would seem dramatically different and alien to someone from the agricultural land around Stafford, but it would be perfectly possible for someone to have travelled there on business and to have been inspired by its strangeness. (This is assuming the connection between the poem’s descriptions with the real landscape is not purely coincidental.)

What did Staffordshire seem like to the fourteenth century inhabitant? Stafford itself was a small town, but important in communications, as it was for centuries, as a ford on the north-south road. Lichfield and Tamworth were ancient towns, but there would have been very few people to the north, apart from the towns of Leek and Cheadle.

Stafford did have connections with the north of the county in the middle ages. The probable 12th century founder of St Chad’s church, Orm, held manors from Biddulph in the North to Essington in the South. His home, it seems, was Darlaston, near Stone, not in the Black Country, which would have been in the centre of a long line of manors which he held through the whole length of the county. By the time of the Pearl Poet St Chad’s was two hundred years old. It is very fanciful I know, but I like to think that the poet could have known the church. Amongst the unusual Norman carvings, on the south side of the great arch, is a carving of a small figure standing over an upturned severed head. This is probably meant to be David, standing over the head of Goliath, but it might have suggested something to the author of Gawain and the Green Knight. There is a separate head at the foot of the north side columns of the arch. It could be the severed head of the Green Knight.


Gawain and the Green Knight has been weighed down with misleading interpretations for a century. There is no reason to suppose the poet is interested in hidden meanings. In both Gawain and Pearl the meaning, when it matters, is explained at length. For example, the pentacle on Gawain’s shield is given a detailed explanation, which mentions the five virtues, five senses and five joys of Mary – and its connection to Mary is reinforced by the fact that the inside of the shield is decorated with an image of Our Lady (The 9th century Nennius tells us King Arthur’s shield also had an image of the Virgin.) The greenness of the Knight is strange, it need not mean anything more. The Green Knight is not a Green Man. The use of the term “Green Man” for the foliate heads in Norman churches dates back no further than 1939. Before that the phrase, often the name of a pub, would suggest a wild man of the woods, a woodwoose – and woodwooses are mentioned in Gawain without any confusion with the Green Knight. How much folk tradition has been smothered by the imposition of fashionable early twentieth-century interpretations, stemming from people like Frazer, Margaret Murray, Jessie M Weston and Lady Raglan, inventor of the modern “Green Man”?

Though the story takes place over a year, which might encourage us to associate it with the cycle of the seasons, it is very hard to find an interpretation of Green Knight’s behaviour that makes sense as a nature symbol. The key point seems to be the “Beheading Game”, which has its roots in older stories.

This poem and other medieval romances, appears to include ideas from older traditions, but that does not mean the original meaning of an ancient story matters to the poet other than as a story. The poetic imagery might resonate with older images, or with things in our own memories, but if we impose an interpretation we can easily lose sight of the poem’s images. The images make the ideas live.

Gawain is a tale of wonders, but it is as Christian as Pearl, as its overt explanations make clear.



Pearl begins with the narrator (who might or might not be the poet speaking as himself) mourning the loss of a very young daughter, the Pearl. He falls asleep on the spot where she was lost (perhaps her grave) and finds himself by a sparkling river, with a river bed of jewels. On the other side of the stream is a young woman, who is as bright as a pearl. This is his daughter, but as a maiden rather than a child. The narrator follows the maiden up the stream and they discuss how it can be that she appears a grown woman. In heaven people are as they should have been. Our souls are the pattern of what we aspire to become.

Finally they reach “the bourne’s head”, the source of the river, and from this spot, which is presumably at the top of a hill, the narrator can see the Heavenly City, as described by St John, with its walls of 12 brilliant jewels.

There are four themes in Pear which I find particularly attractive –

The Garden (and the meeting with the Pearl maiden)

The River

The Tree

The City


Of course, all but the first of these are obviously biblical, from the Revelation, and the poet follows St John closely. The poem, though, puts them in a different context. This is a dream vision, the River and City are experienced, in the imagination at least, by a 14th century poet who has come to the vision by following the maiden by the River. The Garden, at the start of the poem, is less obviously a biblical garden, but it is easy to see the possible connections with Eden, or Paradise.

There is a mysterious parallel here with one of the most intense and vivid scenes in literature, Dante’s meeting with a woman called Matelda in the Earthly Paradise. In both cases the poet is meeting a female figure, on the other side of the stream, who is going to guide the poet on the next stage of his journey.

The connection seems to be made strangely clear by the illustration from the original manuscript of Pearl and a nineteenth century painting of the scene in Dante (by Nicolo Barabino)  which closely follows Dante’s description.

Dante’s poem was written in Italian perhaps eighty years or more before Pearl was written. Could the Pearl Poet, who probably read Latin, have read it? Or is this a poetic coincidence?





Dante and the Pearl Poet are writing about the same thing, a journey to the Heavens.


Dante sees the Heavens in terms of the ancient view of the cosmos, in which the material world, which at the time they thought consisted of just one Earth, is surrounded by spheres, and beyond them, the stars, and beyond that, God. This is not a literal thing but a poetic symbol. It is as true now as it was then. The heavens were not the solar system, or the greater universe, but an image of the fundamental harmonies which guided all Nature and are echoed in our souls. This ancient cosmos is based on musical harmony, not scientific observation. It is not about physical space. If we think of what the middle ages call “Earth” as the whole material universe, with the heavens as worlds beyond the material  world, it is easier to understand what it meant.

The Pearl Poet sees the Heavens in terms of the imagery of the Book of Revelations. Though the language is different the meaning is the same. The imagery of the City is also a way of understanding the ideal pattern of Creation.

This is why I started by saying that these were real symbols, not to be fixed. The imagery both writers use makes something abstract understandable. Even the abstraction is not the thing itself – which is the divine pattern within Nature, which the poet and prophet hope Creation can reveal, now, or at the End of Time.




We might be familiar with the New Jerusalem imagery, but this is just one adaptation of very ancient symbolism which every prophet sees differently, according to the particular message he is trying to express.

What we see, from the point of view of Pearl, is the City, with its twelve layers of brilliant coloured crystal. This is a “city which is at unity with itself”. It is the image of a heaven where the reborn souls live in perfect equality. St John the Divine tells us there is no Temple in the City. In effect this entire New Creation is the Temple. This is a New Creation which is also the ideal pattern, the Harmony Dante pictured as the Spheres of the Heavens.

It seems hard to see that this City, described as a glittering cube, can be the same as the cosmic sphere, and yet it is. This is the same idea seen through a different cultural filter, as I hope I will be able to explain.

From the City flows the River, and the River has, on its banks, the Tree, or many Trees of the same species, which bears its fruit and leaves.

The River and Tree show us that this place, the City, is also Eden, or Paradise. In some traditions the earthly Jerusalem was built on the site of Paradise. In others Paradise was far away, but the source of the great rivers which watered the ancient world. In some prophecies the rivers will flow from the Temple in Jerusalem. In the New Testament version the City is somehow nowhere and everywhere, apparently outside time – and yet –


“…on either side of the river, was there the tree of life, which bare twelve manner of fruits, and yielded her fruit every month: and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.” (Revelation 22:2 KJV)

Every month? Does the city have months? It seems to be perpetually day. Does the year turn?

Are we to imagine the City as the New World beyond time, or in a future time? Is that what St John intended? In the poem the City is “there”, beyond the bourne’s head. There is nothing to suggest it is vision of the future. This City is where the maiden is “now”. Is the poet looking into the future? Is the City eternally present?

The Old Testament sources which St John follows closely imply a future state. The vision of the city is taken from the prophecies of Ezekiel Chapter 48.

”Now when I had returned, behold, at the bank of the river were very many trees on the one side and on the other.

“Then said he unto me, these waters issue out toward the east country, and go down into the desert, and go into the sea: which being brought forth into the sea, the waters shall be healed. And it shall come to pass, that everything that liveth, which moveth, whithersoever the rivers shall come, shall live: and there shall be a very great multitude of fish, because these waters shall come thither: for they shall be healed; and everything shall live whither the river cometh.

“And by the river upon the bank thereof, on this side and on that side, shall grow all trees for meat, whose leaf shall not fade, neither shall the fruit thereof be consumed: it shall bring forth new fruit according to his months, because their waters they issued out of the sanctuary: and the fruit thereof shall be for meat, and the leaf thereof for medicine.”

Ezekiel follows this with an explanation of how the land shall be divided between the twelve tribes of Israel. This suggests that St John’s reference to “the healing of the nations” refers to the tribes. These twelve tribes can be seen as encompassing all people. (After all, in terms of this Eden imagery we are descended from Adam and Eve and the new Eden is ours too.)

St John is ambiguous about the place and time of the vision, and this ambiguity is an important theme in early Christian thought. The New Jerusalem is either a vision of the future, or something that is already “there”, or both. In the Christian vision it is not “there” in the sense of being in the place of the earthly Jerusalem – though in some way was (or is) the earthly Jerusalem outside earthly space and time? The Christian and Hebrew traditions are not clearly separated. Images merge into images.

The apocryphal First Book of Enoch, which was written about two centuries before the time of Christ was probably well known to the early Christians and gives another version of the story of the tree. In this vision Enoch sees the mountain of the Lord – but in this case the mountain is not the same place as Jerusalem. The tree which grows on the mountain is to be transplanted to the Temple in the New Jerusalem.

“And as for this fragrant tree no mortal is permitted to touch it till the great judgement, when He shall take vengeance on all and bring (everything) to its consummation for ever. It shall then be given to the righteous and holy. Its fruit shall be for food to the elect: it shall be transplanted to the holy place, to the temple of the Lord, the Eternal King.”


These symbols, Temple, City, Rivers and Tree, should not be reduced to an allegory. They cannot be reduced to one defined meaning. They change according to the writer’s vision. They have a life of their own, and, when we do not impose a rigid interpretation on a floating image, they can be universal.


It is important. I think, not to define the relationship of the City to this world. It is an ideal form and outside time. Sometimes prophets are seeing it geographically as Jerusalem. Zechariah 14:8 says “And it shall be in that day, that living water shall go out of Jerusalem.” Jerusalem was seen as the centre of the world and the temple founded on the omphalos, the world’s navel. In some way all the rivers of the world do, or will, flow from here. In other views the City is a new form of Creation as a whole. In some Christian thinking it lies in the future, in others it is not so far away. The Kingdom of Heaven is either here, but unrevealed, or coming in a future time. To the prophets and poets the sight of it, at least, is attainable in this world, and at times a worldly city can catch a spark of its life.

I believe (if that isn’t too strong a word) that behind this shimmering, changeable and living imagery, is an abstract idea, only becoming intelligible when its light shines through the cloud.

To me, and no-one has any reason to agree with this, the City is the pattern of what Creation should be. It was there at the beginning, it lies ahead as the goal of our pilgrimage, but it is always present. The River, Fruit and Leaves, bring its qualities down to the created world.


This pattern, which the City represents, is the inherent law in Nature, the law that allows Nature to grow, to discover new forms, to evolve, and which allows us to have free will, freedom to be wonderful or destructive, within the limits of Nature. This means that all Nature is fundamentally good. Even in its wild moments it can reveal the inherent law – which includes any physical laws we like to think of – but is thought of most simply as Harmony.

This idea, that Nature has a law within it, which was the first created thing, God’s first thought of Creation, is very ancient. Tradition says it was the discovery that musical harmony was based on mathematical proportion that revealed that there was inherent law in Nature.  This discovery is associated with Pythagoras in the 5th century BC, but probably dates from far earlier. Pythagoras was said to travelled in the East and learned from the Egyptians and even followers of Moses. It was a discovery that changed humanity’s perception of the universe.

I do not believe that this is a case of imposing an interpretation on the imagery. This abstract idea comes to life in the symbols, just as we only experience Harmony through Music.


The early Hebrew religion was less strictly monotheistic than its later developments. The feminine figure, the “Queen of Heaven”, was there until the return from Babylon, or even, some say, centuries later. This Lady was the companion of The Lord, but it might be a mistake to assume that “The Lord” was “God” in our terms. There might be a “Lord” as well as the absolute “Source of All Being.” It is easier for us to think of this Queen as a feminine personification of this law in Nature – not a goddess exactly, but the first created thing, which is sometimes known as Wisdom.

She is also Jerusalem, the pattern of Creation. There is no doubt that the Hebrew religion had such a figure. The Holy Land is littered with images of her, and she is embedded in the Old Testament. The idea of an inherent law was unpopular with prophets who believed the people had gone astray. Shortly before the destruction of the first Temple and the exile in Babylon Josiah launched a puritanical reform which removed any sign of the Lady and invented a new history, based on Moses and the idea of a written law, to keep the people in order – by following rules rather than by knowing Wisdom. Christianity may have emerged from this older Hebrew tradition, in opposition to the imposed law of the later cult. (As Margaret Barker has explained at length.)


In Proverbs the Tree very clearly represents this alternative law. Wisdom “is a tree of life to them that lay hold upon her: and happy is everyone that retaineth her.” (Proverbs 3:18 KJV) Wisdom is described as the first created thing, the pattern behind creation. This imagery is taken up by medieval theologians, like Bonaventure, who can speaking of Mary as Tree of Life, whether by accident or by some deeper process of understanding restoring the original meaning, in which The Lady is also the Tree. This is more than an allegory. These things all merge into one three-dimensioned symbol. The Tree passes the life of the City, which is the ideal from of Creation, to the world. Wisdom is that pattern and Mary passes the inherent law of Human Nature to her son, the “fruit of her womb”.

Mary has taken on the meaning that the Lady had in this ancient Hebrew religion, though it is also important that she is also, in the story, a real human being, emphasising the intimate connection of God’s ideal pattern and this world.

When Mary is understood as the source of Christ’s humanity, which is in itself divine, the Incarnation can be seen as God’s re-union with an inherently good Creation. When Mary’s role is undervalued the Incarnation can seem quite different, an intrusion of God into a darker world, without a divine order within it.


The Image of the City is a development of the imagery of the Holy of Holies in the Temple at Jerusalem. The Holy of Holies, a chamber in the form of a perfect golden cube, was the representation of the divine pattern of Creation. To the priests it was more than a representation. It was a place where that divine pattern was present on Earth.

This is where the original Tree was, in the form of the great Candlestick, the Menorah. Clement of Alexandria, writing in the second century AD, but drawing on the Jewish philosopher Philo from over 100 years earlier, makes it very clear that this was the significance of the Holy of Holies.

“The lamp, too, was placed to the south of the altar of incense: and by it were shown the motions of the seven planets, that perform their revolutions towards the south. For three branches rose on either side of the lamp, and lights on them; since also the sun, like the lamp, set in the midst of all the planets, dispenses with a kind of divine music to those above and to those below,”

(Clement of Alexandria, The Stromata or Miscellanies, Book V Chapter VI, in The Anti-Nicene Fathers, Volume 2 T & T Clark, Edinburgh, reprinted by Eerdmans, Grand Rapids.)

This explains how Dante’s spherical cosmos has the same meaning as the City’s cube. This concept of the planets is actually the same as the classical view in Dante, in which the spheres of the planets are arranged in the order Moon, Mercury, Venus, Sun, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn.

There are other interpretations of the Menorah, but Clement’s will do in this case.

The Holy City is the Holy of Holies. The Tree takes the place of the Candlestick, which is also the Tree, and which is also, one might suppose, the spindle on which the planets spin as described by Plato in his Myth of Er.


The planetary tradition derives from the apparent parallel of the pattern of the heavenly spheres with the musical scale. It could be said that the musical scale need not have seven notes. In modern times we like to tune a scale to twelve semi-tones, but this can only be done by making the tunings approximate, rather than strictly following harmonic laws. Though Greeks, and presumably other ancient peoples, played and sung music with more complex tunings, they accepted that the naturally harmonious scale, based on Pythagorean proportion, had seven tones. (The emotional effect of music can derive form its conflict with natural harmonies.) Apollo’s lyre had seven strings. This conveniently, or miraculously, matched the pattern of the visible planets. The essential point to remember is that the planets “seemed” to reflect Harmony, and we may, if we wish, believe that this apparent form of the cosmos is not “true”, whereas Harmony itself is “true” and is a sign that there are inherent laws in Nature. In a sense Harmony is Heaven.


The Cube, in this ancient Hebrew system of symbols, represents unity and perfection, rather than a sphere. It has to be accepted that a cube and a sphere are the same thing seen by different cultural traditions! Clement also explains in this description of the Holy of Holies that the jewels worn by the High Priest represent the zodiac, the other dimension of the cosmic pattern. The twelve jewelled layers of St John’s City are also to be understood as representing the zodiac. The jewels may or may not have any specific relationship with the signs of the zodiac (some say they do) but they do represent the idea that the number twelve is related to the heaven of the stars and that this is another aspect of divine proportion in Nature, in this case an aspect of Time. Though the ancient Hebrews used, and their descendants still use, a Babylonian calendar based on the cycles of the moon, which changes approximately thirteen times in a year, they still contrived to fit these cycles to twelve months.





In the middle ages the Tree emerged as a powerful symbol of Cabala, the Jewish mystical tradition. This “Tree of Life” developed in southern Europe at a time of creative cross-fertilisation between Judaism, Islam and Christianity. The cabalistic Tree is a stylised diagram of ten sephiroth, or aspects of God. These are emanations from the absolutely simple Source of Being which radiate through all Creation. These qualities of God include Wisdom, Beauty, Strength and Justice. These qualities are not to confused with the Fruit of the Tree, however much they may resemble fruit on some more fanciful illustrations of what is really an abstract concept.


Though this image of a Tree emerges from the middle-ages it does seem to be a reflection of the ancient, original Tree, as the pattern of God’s Wisdom in all Creation. This is becomes more apparent when the ten qualities are replaced by the Heavens, Planets and Earth as a system of emanations. This then appears to be a development of the Menorah, the seven-branched candlestick.

A very important aspect of this pattern is that it shows that all these qualities work together. Everything that exists will contain all these qualities. The qualities, or heavenly influences, combine in an infinite variety of ways to create the character if every individual thing. The cabalistic Tree is also a dynamic pattern, in which God flows through the different sephiroth as an infinitely creative source of life.

This Tree is both the model of the Cosmos and also the model of Adam Kadmon, the ideal Man, made in the Image of God. Every human being, and ever created thing, could be seen as a Fruit of the Tree.

There is no doubt that the Cabalistic Tree is a coherent and valuable way of looking at Creation. Though it clearly has a close connection with the original Tree, which has its ancient association with Asherah, or Wisdom, Judaism had become more firmly monotheistic and the feminine element was more hidden. It is there, however. The Sephirothic Tree reveals God as beyond earthly ideas of male and female. This Tree contains both male and female aspects, just as the original “Adam” could mean the first human couple, not only the male.




The Tree is a very commodious symbol. In the middle ages it gathered other meanings, some of which might seem to confuse the original meaning.

The connection between the Tree and the Cross does not seem to have been made by any of the writers of the New Testament. This might seem to be an obvious link to us today but it only emerged later, and can add confusion to the use of the symbol.

There is a Second book of Enoch which seems to justify this combination of Tree and Cross, but which probably dates from several centuries after the New Testament texts. It is a book written to support Christian ideas in the guise of an ancient text.

In this story the Tree is in Eden.

“And in the midst of the trees that of life, in that place whereon the Lord rests, when he goes up into paradise; and this tree is of ineffable goodness and fragrance, and adorned more than every existing thing; and on all sides (it is) in form gold-looking and vermilion and fire-like and covers all, and it has produce from all fruits.”


The idea of the Tree “of life, in that place whereon the Lord rests, when he goes up into paradise” inevitably suggests the Christian imagery of the cross.

If the Cross is the Tree, then it is possible to imagine Christ on the Cross as the Fruit. Bonaventure used this imagery as the basis of his book “The Tree of Life”, in which the twelve fruit are twelve aspects of Christ, and stages in the story of his incarnation, life, death and resurrection. Each is the subject of a meditation, and these were very influential in encouraging imaginative prayer, in which we are invited to share in the experiences in imagination. The object of the mediations is to help us “conform to Christ”, which might be seen as a way of becoming better listeners and performers of the music of Creation. This association of the Fruit with Christ does not contradict his recognition that Mary was the Tree – as Christ is also “the Fruit of her Womb”.


This seems to be a diversion from the original idea of the Tree as a pattern of Creation, but it is part of a developing tradition. There is a connection with the cabalistic Tree, which, though it may have ancient origins, only emerges as a symbol at the same time as Bonaventure was writing, the 13th century. Bonaventure’s Fruit are not to be confused with the sephiroth, which are not the Fruit of the Tree but the Tree itself. Though all things contain the harmonies of the heavens, or the qualities if God, Christ is, theologically, the perfect expression of God in Creation. There is a parallel with the Adam Kadmon figure which is sometimes superimposed on the cabalistic Tree – though is this actually a later Christian addition to cabalistic tradition?




Though there is a resemblance between these two images there is no connection between the ten sephiroth and the twelve fruit in Bonaventure’s Tree. Christ in himself is the perfect expression of God, and so all the qualities of God are present in him as a human being, as they are in every human soul. All the Fruit of the Tree will contain all the qualities, as will these.

It seems as if Bonaventure has appropriated the imagery of the Fruit and given them this one specific meaning – they are Christ.


What then, becomes of the image of the mysterious and undefined Fruit that are given to the World?

The simple answer is that these two interpretations are completely compatible. Christ is all in all. Every gift of God is also Christ. This is a thoroughly Bonaventurian view. Christ is the Word. The Word is the expression of God’s unity which all things seek. We all have those harmonies within us, or the sephirothic emanations within us, but the Word draws us to become what we should be. This process is the incarnation of Christ within us. The more we know Christ, the more we know Christ in all things – and vice versa.


As Bonaventure wrote in his Tree of Life, Christ is the Book of Wisdom and contains the beauty of “all forms and lights” and yet is “a single Word.”


As I have explained, the connection of the Tree and the Cross was not made by any of the writers of the New Testament. The Cross was such a difficult subject that it seems it was hard to find a simple meaning for it. It was what it was. Some would say that the fact that the Cross is not easily explained through Old Testament symbolism implies that it is a fact and not a symbol or a myth.

By the thirteenth century a complex mythology had developed to explain how the Cross could also be the Tree of Life. In its most elaborate form this was the story of Seth and the Oil of Life. There are alternative versions, one being told in the early 13th century Queste for the Holy Grail. The key idea is that Adam’s son, Seth, planted a seed of the Tree of Life in the grave, or even in the skull, of Adam, and this grew into trees which eventually supplied the wood for the Cross. This myth may have influenced the fashion for the carvings of foliate heads in Norman churches. In some cases (Kilpeck?) a tree growing from a head clearly represents Adam and the source of the Tree of Jesse.


This is what the medieval imagination is like. Images and stories can have multiple meanings. A preacher like Bonaventure could quite scripture out of context to mean anything that struck him. There was no sense of what we would call “literal truth”.

It is, though, startling and disturbing that Bonaventure could, at one point, be thinking of Mary as the Tree of Life, an insight that links back to the earliest tradition of Asherah in the Temple, and at another point be thinking of the Cross, the instrument of torture, as the Tree. These things are not meant to be simple, or easy. The World, as we know it, has the Cross within it as well as the Tree of Life. This is the creative and dramatic tension within Nature.





At the same time as these ideas were developing the feminine, and Wisdom in the form of Mary as patroness of the Seven Liberal Arts, was enshrined in stone and glass at Chartres Cathedral. Mary was shown as the source of all Wisdom, and Pythagoras, demonstrating the harmony of Nature, is there at the bottom right of the arch. The medieval Christian tradition had touched its ancient source.

Mary is not  Wisdom, she is Wisdom within Nature, a human being who is represents all of Creation bearing God within her, as all Nature reveals God. Mary is, in effect the Temple, which is formed from Harmony and shines with the light of God. This might seem fanciful and excessively Marian to a non-catholic, but it is a powerful symbol of the way that God is present in the material world.

Mary shares her physical nature with God, and passes the harmony of the human soul, of human nature, to Christ.



Curiously, at the same time as cabala was appearing in Spain the Franciscan Ramon Lull was developing his own symbolism of the Tree and a system of qualities of God which, he proposed, were the key laws within Creation. Lull’s system is staggeringly complex, though it was influential for a time. The parallels with the original Tree are more remote, but he does have an interesting idea that all things that exist are related to the fundamental aspects of God. It is as if God produces, or emanates, a few ideas, which may be like harmonies, and everything is made of these eight, or more, ideas in increasingly complicated combinations. It is as if Lull is struggling to explain something which could better be explained in terms of Music.


The key to the symbolism of the City and Tree, then, is that they represent the pattern, or harmony, behind all Creation. This is, first and foremost, musical Harmony. Harmony is a sacred sign of this law that guides the cosmos. The ancient cosmos is a symbol of this Harmony, and so is the City or Holy of Holies. The significance of this is that God first created a pattern and Nature is free to grow and evolve according to these inherent laws. The symbolic Seven Days of Creation also express this, and this was understood by Jewish scholars at the time of Christ.

The classic explanation of this, known and revered by Jewish and Christian theologians, was Plato’s account in “Timaeus”.

Plato tells a symbolic story of creation in which God begins by making the World Soul, the pattern for everything. (Plato describes the form of the cosmos in more detail elsewhere.) God has left over material and uses this to make the human soul, which is the same pattern in miniature. Humans are made of the same stuff as the cosmos. Unfortunately, in Plato’s view, we are unable to hear the music of the spheres because we are deafened by our material bodies. Our task is to learn to retune ourselves by becoming lovers of wisdom, philosophers.

This simple vision of Creation was popular amongst Jewish and Christian theologians until the Reformation. Christian interpreters may have had a less negative view of the material world than Plato (this is open to question on both sides) and so the reason for our deafness was Sin, our tendency to hear only ourselves rather than God. But, though Christ may have been our guide to lift us from Sin, this in no way contradicted the key idea that Creation had this divine law within it. Ultimately the Law and its source, the Word, are one.

An important difference between the Christian version of this story of Creation and Plato’s (which is only meant to be an allegory or myth) is that the Christian view of the cosmos is not static. Plato’s story seems to describe a world that is as it is. It’s just there. In the Christian view Creation is dynamic, God (the source of all Being), drives the world to produce infinitely new works, to be continuously creative.


God, if you like, may have made a divine law before Creation began, and this allows things to grow freely towards the fulfilment of Harmony, but we can also know the River – the life that flows from the City. This Water brings the Life which fills Creation with the energy, and the desire, to Create.

The Fruit may be the elements of Harmony, but the Water inspires us to make Music.

We may, perhaps, think of the Holy Spirit, which inspires us to work with the Fruit and Leaves to make new works. Plato suggested that there were patterns of everything in the Mind of God but a Christian Platonist, like Bonaventure, would explain that God only need one Idea.  Every new work desires to be an expression of that one Idea, the Word. God has made, first, the inherent laws, but there is no other design other than Himself, the Word, which is the unity and “thisness” that everything seeks to become. With the guidance of the inherent Harmony Creation is free to experiment and dance into endlessly new works, all desiring to reveal The Word.

As Peter Sterry wrote in the 1660s, the Word becomes every infinitely varied Work “so that it may enjoy itself, sport with itself… with endless and ever new pleasures of all Divine Loves.” (A Discourse on the Freedom of the Will)so that it may enjoy itself, sport with it self, in these, with endless and ever new Pleasures of all Divine Loves.that it may enjoy itself, sport with it self, in these, with endless and ever new Pleasures of all Divine Loves.”




Pearl gives me a title for my project:

“About that water arn tres ful schym

That twelve frytes of lyf con bere ful frym

And renowles new in uche a mone.”


“About that water are trees full bright

That twelve fruits of life can bear full soon

And renew themselves new in each moon (or month).”


Hence my title:




“Moon” is more fanciful than the rather dry “month.”


My musical Fruit are humble reflections in this world of these life-giving fruit.


Musical fruit?




These musical Fruit are gifts from the Tree, which is also Harmony, Wisdom, or embodied in Mary, to the world. They are a form of prayer, and there’s one for each month of the year. All I can aim for is a series of musical images of these fruit, something to reflect the harmony of the Tree of Life onto the world around us, not as way of imposing meaning on a world which already has meaning, but as a way of helping us to see meaning.



All music is the gift of the Tree, as all Music depends on Harmony. In the ancient view of the cosmos each planet had a sound, a tone, and a mode, a musical scale with its own quality – but the leaves of the Tree contain all harmonies. The music of the Earth is mixed, combining the sounds of the heavens in infinitely creative ways.


In other words, this earthly composer can, and should, use all these harmonies to the best of his ability – but with one essential condition – that he bears in mind where the music comes from, and that all the music is a prayer.



The Fruit are made of the musical materials which are the gifts of the Tree, but the River is the source of the desire to make works. The spirit gives us the desire to create things which reveal the Word. And the Word is, in fact, the same thing as the Spirit. Unity, of the One, in Platonic terms, cannot exist in this world without also the desire to be Unity.


This means that, though the materials, Harmony itself, is divine, the living Spirit is in the making, the combining of the materials to produce new works. The Fruit are products of the Tree but depend on the water from the River to grow!


The real magic, or spiritual experience, is in making. We can make without being aware of any of these convenient systems of harmonies or laws. Making is the work of combining things, whether sounds or words, to make something new. In this we are doing what the universe does. We are co-creating. The life and desire which the River brings is inescapable. It is so strong a desire that it can drive us to endless unnecessary creativity, the writing of symphonies no-one will hear, or building empires. We all have a vacuum in of desire which needs to be filled. At other times the creative action is sparked by the awareness of what has been called “the absence of a good.” Once we are aware that there is no symphony quite like the one we have in mind, or no picture which conveys the quality of that field, or no satisfactory tin-opener, we have to make one. Our own vacuum and the symbolic River which rushes into it are one and the same, just as the Spirit which draws things together and the Word which is the pattern of everything that is created are the same thing.




So, for my project I am thinking in terms of Music as a gift, or Fruit, to the world – and a Fruit for Each Moon.


Simply as a conceit, or a framework, or a route for a circular pilgrimage, I am visiting places in a circle round Stafford with the turning year. Some places are closer to the town than others. Some are “sacred” and some are not. I hope to discover the ordinary “spare and strange” on my way.


The music may be no more than a device to encourage people to look! I have no doubt, following my Franciscan theology, that everything can be a revelation of God – but it’s very hard for us to see, hear, and feel, clearly. The music may be a prayer for the World. There are places, and things, which are desolate or damaged, of course This world is a place of change, experiment and the continuing search for Unity. If we are there we are part of the place. Just being there and seeing is a prayer.


All the music needs to say is “Look!”