Tree of Life Group
Deborah Leland Fairbanks and unidentified family member
The imagery seen in these four objects can be related to the “Tree of Life,” an archetype with ancient religious and folkloric origins. Found across many cultures, this powerful symbol summons associations with fertility and immortality. The expanding reiteration of branches and flowers conveys a sense of unbounded growth, a multi-faceted system for rebirth and regeneration.
In early American material culture, variations on tree-of-life imagery were often used to decorate “moveable” goods—the kinds of textiles and furniture that were passed down from mother to daughter. Flourishes of flowering, fruitful vines, and branches may have been considered especially appropriate for a bride or young mother beginning a family of her own. In the case of the bed rug seen here, the carnation, an ancient emblem of love, adds further strength to the familial symbolism of unfurling branches. The blanket chest may have itself been used to store decorated textiles, compounding the meaning of the blossoming vines extending across the wooden surface.
In the mid-19th century, Shaker community member Hannah Cohoon captured the spiritual dimension of the tree of life. Like other “gift drawings” created within this religious group, Tree of Blazing Light was believed to be a response to a divine vision, bestowed on the maker by a spirit guide. Cohoon’s image is a testament to the enduring power of the tree of life as a sacred but highly recognizable symbol. This imagery operated across cultures and is also evoked by the colorful bird trees often made within Pennsylvania German communities to celebrate births.