We are in Segovia, Spain. In the local Cathedral, among the colors of the stained glass windows and the splendid Gothic architecture, there is also a curious painting hanging on the wall. It is called The Tree of Life, locally El Arbol de la Vida, and is one of many that hangs in the Immaculate Conception Chapel (Capilla de la Concepción) in Segovia Cathedral.
A riotous party is taking place in the bough of a tree symbolizing life, complete with food, live music, and merriment. Meanwhile below, a sinister skeleton hacks at the trunk of the tree with a scythe. Nearby a pudgy hamster-sized devil aids death by tugging on a rope wrapped around the tree to bring it tumbling down, while the figure of Jesus Christ stands close, preparing to ring the bell of mortality.
Although the scene depicted in this memento mori may seem slightly comical by today’s standards, the allegory would likely have instilled fear and dread in the 17th century when seen through the eyes of an any regular peasant visiting the cathedral to pray or confess their sins. Even today, the painting retains a certain power to provoke thoughts in the visitor about the past ages gone by and the finitude of life.
Unfortunately, not much is known about the painter other than his name, Ignacio de Ries, and that by his death in 1661 he produced just over a dozen religiously inspired paintings that today grace the walls of several cathedrals across Spain. He was probably born in Flanders, then part of the Spanish Netherlands and written sources show him active in Seville between 1636 and 1661, where also probably died. The Capilla de la Concepción at Segovia Cathedral, founded in 1645, contains his most important works. Among them, in addition to The Tree of Life, Adoration of the Shepherds, Conversion of St Paul (in photo below), Baptism of Christ, Coronation of the Virgin and King David can be admired in the chapel.
All images from Wikipedia