Trees in Art, Civilization and Life


Forest fires, one of the consequences of global warming, have caused great damage both in our country and in the world, which will take years to compensate. He gave us lessons by causing many lives to be destroyed, material-spiritual and emotional traumas. When it comes to trees, our sincere bond, perhaps our devotion from our ancestors, made us one heart.

Trees are unique and important in the civilization-building adventure of humanity. Trees have taken their place as a wise and benevolent power that guides people. In the early stages of civilization, man often sought (and found) the mystery of nature, which he sought to make sense of, in trees—people respected, worshiped, and made vows to trees. It was thought that the trees, whose uppermost branches reach the heaven in the sky and the roots at the bottom reach the depths of the earth, form a divine axis that bestows the secret of life on people; In this respect, the symbolism of the tree, which connects the earth and the sky, has found its place in the legends of different communities starting from very early dates. The tree depiction, which is generally called the "Tree of Life", is called "Yggdrasil" in Scandinavia, "Etz Hayyim" in Hebrews, "Kalpavriksha" in India, and "Fusang" in China. Celtic priests ('druids) believed that while the oak tree was sacred, the birds on the top of the tree also communicated with the divine beings in the sky. It is known to show the characteristics of the cult. The Slavs also perceived the world as a giant tree, and imagined Perun, the highest of the gods they believed in, sitting on the treetop. It is known that during the Middle Minoan Period, a tree cult combined with the mother goddess belief became widespread in Crete. In Turkic communities in Central Asia, legends of "derived from trees" are remarkably common (especially in Oghuz tribes) as the tribes trace their origins to trees. It is possible to multiply these examples.

 Picture 1: Tree of Life. Erzurum Double Minaret Madrasa 1285-1290

Figure 2: The depiction of Yggdrasill
 Picture 3: Kalpavriksha 8th century. Pawon temple, Java, Indonesia
 Image4: Fusang tree, Wu Liang Shrine, mid-2nd century

In the Eurasian cultural environment, there is a connection between the Tree of Life and the Woman. The most common form of this intimacy is the depictions with the upper part of the woman and the lower part of the tree. (Picture 5) The female figure has been the symbol of fertility, fertility and eternal life in all primitive societies. The tree, on the other hand, is a universal, cosmic entity that extends to the depths of the earth with its roots and to the sky with its knots, standing between earth and sky and connecting these two elements, and at the same time combining life and death, soul and spirit, darkness and light in itself. From this point of view, the tree coincides with the symbolism of eternal life, life continuity and female symbolism. The Yakuts believed that the tree was the mother of everything. (Beksaç, 2006, p.80) Again, Humay Ana, the goddess of birth and life in Yakuts, sits under the sacred beech tree and women who want to have children worship this tree and give sacrifices to it.(Vasiliev, 1996, p.128) It is also known that Yakut women have wooden beads, the symbol of Mother Umay, on them.(Geybullayev, 1999, p.216)

Figure 5: Golden pediment from Scythian kurgans.
B.C. 700-400 centuries.
north of the Black Sea.
Painting:6 Michelangelo, Caduta dell'Uomo or The Expulsion from Eden, fresco, Capella Sistina, Vatican, 1508 – 1512

This scene shows the moment when the original sin was committed (Picture: 6) Eve, depicted as a snake stretching out from the tree lying behind her, moved to take the forbidden fruit given by Satan. While the part of heaven in the fresco is brighter, only the angel who took Adam and Eve out of heaven with a sword in his hand is bright and colorful in the scene of the expulsion from heaven. The sword in the angel's hand is a reference to the "burning sword" that God gave to Eve. Eve's face is young and beautiful on the left, while on the right she appears regretful, ugly and old. The burden of mortality and the sin he committed made him this way. But what is more interesting is that the forbidden fruit is the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. It is possible to think that this tree is the heir of the imagination of the Tree of Life in pagan beliefs; however, the dangerous thoughts and actions that its fruit arouses in man indicate the dark side of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. The descent of wickedness and sin from the treetop by a serpent-like temptress; He linked the tree directly with sexuality and against God's will.(ArtBook – Michelangelo)

In Slavic mythology, Baba Yaga, a terrible swamp witch, sits in the wild forests and is identified with the broken branches of rotten trees and the roots of swamp plants, just as Perun, who is considered the greatest of the gods, is thought to be sitting on the top of a tree. (Image:7) (The word "Father" in Proto-Slavic languages ​​means "old woman")

 Picture:7- Ivan Bilibin's (1876 – 1942) depiction of Baba Yaga in 1902, the witch's closeness with trees and her disposition on them

The relationship between trees and witches, and the subject of witches' help from trees, while enchanting people at the end of the 15th century, has been extensively studied.

Picture:8 (left) Hans Baldung Grien, Hexensabbat, print, 40 cm x 27 cm, 1510 and (right) Gustave Doré, Harpies dans la forêt des Suicides or Harpies in the Suicide Forest, print, 27 cm x 19 cm, 1860 's

Hans Baldung Grien and Gustave Doré have dealt with this subject especially in their engravings. However, in the print paintings of these two artists, in which the witches' Sabbath ritual is depicted [image: 8], the uncanny relationship between witches and trees and the image of the tree as an embodied metaphor of women's sexual desires, which must always be controlled, take their place strikingly.

Canto XIII in the Inferno book of Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy, which he completed one year before his death (1265-1321), takes the reader to a suicide forest. it's a scary place. Trees have no leaves; their bodies rotted. The souls of those who committed suicide were imprisoned in these trees, whose bare branches rose to the sky like bones, and female-headed vultures, called Harpy in Greek mythology, were planted on their heads. These damned souls are fused with the trees – their souls merged with the bodies of these trees, merged with them, disappeared into the trees. The print painting by the French painter and printmaker Gustave Doré (9–1832), in which this scene was depicted, accompanied Dante, along with Virgilius (1883 BC-70 BC), one of the most important Roman poets of the Augustan period. It depicts as he is about to enter this dreadful forest. “The branches were not green, they were the color of earth; not straight, but knotted together, bifurcated and intertwined; It has no fruit, it has poisonous thorns”. In Doré's description, this narrative is reflected in a frightening fiction in which the cursed souls who suffer terribly, their contracted bodies and immobilized arms integrate with the tree branches and it is difficult to distinguish them from each other (Image:19)

Picture:9- Gustave Doré -Prodigals wandering through the suicide forests

It is currently on display at the Museum of Applied Arts in Vienna, Austria. Klimt made this painting by special order in 1909 as a frieze.

Gustav Klimt's ''Tree of Life'' (Image:1909), which was made by special order in 10, says that the tree of life is the symbol of the Golden Age that will call the unbelievers to salvation. Matisse will soon use the Tree of Life in the Rosaire Chapel in Vence. (Picture :11) Trees and women mingle in heaven, in a world in which people dance and love each other. Women turn into trees, grow, and spread throughout nature, just like Matisse's woman transforms into a plane tree. Where the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge are, one truly feels himself in the Garden of Eden. When we look at the right side of the painting, a man and a woman are depicted hugging, and on the left, a woman is depicted inspired by mummy portraits. The swirling branches represent that life continues to move forward. These folds in the branches express the complexity of life and also the order within that complexity. Again, the branches extend from the underground to the earth, explaining the relationship between the underground-earth-heaven. Note the bird on the trunk of the tree that Klimt painted. A black bird. It stands where the branches begin. This bird is thought to represent death. It states that everything has a beginning as well as an end. (Picture: 10)

Figure 10: Working outline for the Scoclet Frieze, c. 1905-1909
Figure 11: Henri Matisse, Chapelle du Rosaire, 1951

In the history of civilization and art, examples of the tree phenomenon are increasing and continue to inspire art. Forests, which beautify our lives with many benefits, also color the art world as an aesthetic element and subject. I hope trees will one day not only remain as a symbolic image in art history pages, paintings and sculptures. It continues as the supreme, life-giving ornament of nature throughout human civilization and even after (as before) it.


“The Witches of Salem”, The Gender of History, Fatmagül Berktay, Metis Publications, Istanbul, 2018, p. 224 – 227.

Inferno, Dante Alighieri, Translation: Robin Kırkpatrick, Penguin Classics, London, 2013.

The Tree of Life: Articles – Book One- Gönül Alpay Tekin, Yeditepe Publishing House, 2017

Trees in the history of art and civilization,K24, Ali Kayaalp,2019

Gustav Klimt, Gilles Neret, Taschen/Remzi Bookstore, 2006

8 Review

  1. The place of trees in the existence processes of humanity, the meanings attributed to them in different cultures, their expectations from them...
    I read it with pleasure. Thank you for your pen, Ms. Melike.

  2. Ms. Melike,,,It's great,,it's been a great article and illustration,,tree is life,it's life,,,you explained it very well,,,I'm waiting for your new article and pictures

  3. Art, history and tree combined in one article… A delicious, satisfying article. Thank you Ms. Melike. I enjoyed reading it a lot.


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