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Trees of Life

Author: Maria Matson
Issue: April, 2013, Page 40
This clay Tree of Life from Buffalo Bill’s Trading Post was made by artisans in Chapala, Jalisco, Mexico. It is intended to commemorate one’s ancestors.

history, Highlights and helpful Hints

Plant a tree. Save a tree. Hug a tree. Who doesn’t like trees? Even though money doesn’t grow on them, trees are treasured for one reason or another: for the fruit they bear or the shade and shelter they provide. Trees have been so worshipped over the ages that there’s even a word for it: dendrolatry, meaning “the veneration of trees.” Given the countless fables, myths, proverbs, symbols and idioms that revolve around trees, it is clear that humans are a dendrolatrous species indeed.

But one tree in particular, the Tree of Life, is celebrated by myriad cultures and religions. We seem to be one world in acknowledging the Tree of Life as a symbol of strength, wisdom or growth, or as an emblem of the connection between Heaven and Earth, past and present, and the cycle of life, death and rebirth.

Although they are largely represented symbolically, there is an actual Tree of Life in Bahrain—a 32-foot-tall Prosopis cineraria that has been dubbed as such because it has managed to thrive atop a sandy hill in the middle of the desert for some 400 years. Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Florida has a Tree of Life too, but it’s a man-made, 145-foot structure covered in animal carvings with a movie theater housed inside.

This mango wood wall art from Cost Plus World Market is from India. It shows a Bodhi Tree, the sacred fig tree where it is said that Buddha found enlightenment.
Spiritually speaking, the Tree of Life is referenced in a range of religious teachings. The Book of Genesis says it stood in the Garden of Eden and bore fruit that, when eaten, bestowed everlasting life. In Judaism, Etz Chaim, the Hebrew term for Tree of Life, is used to refer to the Torah itself, to yeshivas and synagogues, and to the wooden poles to which handwritten Torah scrolls are attached. In the Book of Mormon, the Tree of Life symbolizes the love of God. Kabbalah has two Tree of Life symbols: one upside down with roots emanating from the “divine” world; the other right-side up with branches growing up to the divine source.

The Tree of Life has taken root in science as well. Charles Darwin, for example, used a tree to illustrate the concept of phylogeny, or the interrelationship of all species. This spawned the ongoing Tree of Life Web Project, which currently consists of some 10,000 online pages of information about the earth’s organisms and their evolutionary history, compiled by biologists from around the world. 

And, as to be expected of an object so adored, the Tree of Life has inspired many an artist. It’s the subject of a slew of sculptures, including one at the British Museum made by four Mozambican artists from weapons that streamed into the country during its 16-year civil war. Artist Gustav Klimt famously created a mixed-media mosaic in the dining room of a private residence—the Stoclet Palace in Brussels—that features a Tree of Life spreading across fifteen 6-foot-high marble panels. Frank Lloyd Wright put an art-deco twist on the motif in what has become one of his most popular art-glass designs. A stained-glass piece credited to Louis Comfort Tiffany also features a tall, verdant tree. The Tree of Life is the subject of a popular quilting pattern, and its form embellishes tapestries, wallpaper and fabrics, as well as rugs hailing from Persia to Pottery Barn.

Photos - From left: This Tree of Life from Pier 1 Imports is crafted of glass and iron. According to the folks at Pier 1, it represents “strength, beauty and the human need to plant roots and branch out.” • Made from a Haitian oil drum, this Tree of Life from Tierra Del Lagarto features a sunflower and bird motif.

Those living in the Southwest are likely most familiar with Trees of Life from Mexico. Called Arboles de la Vida, these ceramic folk-art sculptures are often wildly colorful and laden with flowers, birds and figures depicting a single theme, like the Nativity, the Day of the Dead, Noah’s Ark or even Frida Kahlo. Thought to have evolved from the silver candelabras and incense burners used in churches during colonial times, they originally were used to help teach native peoples the Biblical story of Creation. As such, traditional examples depict the Tree of Life from the Garden of Eden, and include Adam, Eve, the Serpent and the Archangel Gabriel. Some purists maintain that without those figures, it is not truly a Tree of Life.

“In Latin America, Trees of Life are about celebrating a new life, or new beginnings,” notes artist Gennaro Garcia. “They are often commissioned or purchased to commemorate the birth of a baby.”

This colorful ceramic version of the Tree of Life is from Meza’s in Art. Mexican Trees of Life often depict religious stories, such as the tale of Adam and Eve or, in this case, Noah’s Ark.
In Izúcar de Matamoros, Puebla, Mexico, considered the birthplace of such candelabras and incense burners, Trees of
Life were traditionally presented to newlyweds to ensure prosperity and a bountiful harvest—both in the fields and with family. This town is also home to some of the big names in clay sculpture. Francisco Flores lives there, carrying on the traditional style of his late father, Aurelio, who is credited with having first produced the colorful and detailed Trees of Life we know today. The Castillo Orta family includes several generations of clay artists, all producing finely detailed pieces. The late Alfonso Castillo Orta is arguably the most famous among them; he was named a Great Master of Folk Art by the Banamex Foundation and was awarded the National Prize of Sciences and Arts in the category of Arts and Popular Traditions in 1996 by the Mexican government.

In addition to Izúcar de Matamoros, the villages of Acatlán de Osorio and Metepec are also known for their Trees of Life. The late Heron Martinez Mendoza was well regarded for his earth-toned, burnished ceramic Trees of Life, and potters from the town are still making such pieces today. In Metepec, the Soteno family produces elaborate Trees of Life with a wide range of themes and also creates custom pieces. Regardless of how it looks or the story it tells, a Tree of Life is meant to be “read” from the front, and from bottom to top.

Where to Buy
Azadi Fine Rugs; Buffalo Bill’s Trading Post; Mexican Tile & Stone Co.; Meza’s in Art; Purple Lizard; Tierra Del Lagarto;

Designed by famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright for his Darwin D. Martin House, this replicated art glass panel depicts a stylized Tree of Life.
A tile mural from Mexican Tile & Stone Co. depicts a Persian variation of the Tree of Life flanked by elegant peacocks and flowering limbs.
The Arbol de Vida Guadalupano is a hand-carved Tree of Life made by local artist Gennaro Garcia and his father, Luciano. The central figure of the Virgin of Guadalupe is encircled by various blooms and butterflies.

The Tree of Life in this Persian rug from Azadi Fine Rugs springs from a vase and represents eternal life. The motif is used for prayer rugs as well as other types of Persian rugs.
VivaTerra’s circular Tree of Life wall art is made of reclaimed metal.
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