Why Do We Marvel at the Beauty of Trees?
Updated: May 29, 2021
Why do we often marvel at the beauty of old trees, at their majesty and solemnity? It’s because the tree has always been a powerful symbol that relates to the self, ancestry and the universe.
Countless myths and fairy-tales across the world tell how people and gods transform themselves into trees. Trees have agency of their own. They can be witnesses like in Narnia, or speak and move about like in Lord of the Rings. Similar to the self, they grow from a seed to full existence, multiplying, perishing and renewing. In indigenous culture trees are living things. First Nations often referred to trees as grandmothers possessing, absorbing, and carrying the knowledge of the world. The ancestral tree in Marvel’s Black Panther (2018) is also represented in this way: T’Challa visits the tree that is located in the spiritual ancestral realm and receives guidance and blessings from it. Our modern fascination with family trees (our “roots”) and DNA Ancestry tests falls into the same symbolic significance of the tree.
Trees also represent the universe and different magical worlds, like the mythical Yggdrasill in Norse mythology with its branches extending to the Heavens and its roots to mystical wells and springs. In Lord of the Rings, we find the world of forest elves placed among giant, old trees. We find the same symbols when hiking in the old forests, seeing how old trees inhabit and nestle all kinds of life. They extract life through their roots from animal and vegetative decay underground, including the dead trees that nourish them.
Some of the most beautiful, symbolic depictions of sacred trees are found in Islam. This tradition has always favoured nature, animal and floral themes, as well as intricate geometrical designs to convey the inexpressible beauty and complexity of the invisible, divine realm. We find the tree theme in magnificent designs of Persian carpets that depict the trees of Paradise nestling all types of life. These trees have a precise, symmetrical structure with two halves being perfect mirrors of each other: two identical birds, two identical branches, etc. This symmetrical duality reminds us of the dual nature of human life and that our world is a reflection of the invisible realm. The roots of the tree point to the divine source of all existence that gives birth to expressions in the manifested realm.
In Orthodox Christianity, we find many icons that depict Jesus or Mary as the mystical tree, pointing to the dual nature of the cross as the tree of life and the tree of death. In this beautiful depiction from the Church of Annunciation of the Virgin Mary in Lindos (Rhodes, Greece), a sanctuary door piece from the church of the Dormition from Lindos features Mary as the tree of life with the disciples as the branches of the tree and a mysterious male figure as the seed of the tree.
Ethiopian Christianity, one of the most ancient forms of Christianity dating back to the 4th century Kingdom of Axum, features unique bronze crosses. Their exquisite floral designs and elaborated lattice work resemble the tree of life that inhabits mystical plants and flowers. Triangular and spherical forms, intricately carved geometrical designs, are an influence of Islamic art as Ethiopia soon found itself surrounded by the Islamic Empire. Ethiopian crosses are a good reminder that the Christian cross has a dual nature. The tree of death transforms in the tree of life through the mystery of the sacrifice.
By Tatiana Tiaynen-Qadir and Ali Qadir
May 14, 2021