Katharine Maltwood: Seeking the Tree of Life

Magazine clipping from The Illustrated London News
Magazine clipping from The Illustrated London News, "Televising the Holy Thorn, Scenes from Kingsthorn, Herefordshire, at Midnight on Christmas Eve, Old Style."


Glastonbury, a small town in England’s southwest, has been identified as a site of spirituality since the Middle Ages. A location revered by a diverse array of those seeking the sacred, Glastonbury’s otherworldly value is multiple: at various times it has been embraced as a place of prehistoric Goddess worship, space of Druidic learning, the otherworldly Isle of Avalon, foundation point of Christianity, a New Age and ecological epicentre, and even a point of contact for alien communication.

One of Glastonbury’s most prominent legends is the story of Saint Joseph of Arimathea. In Christian mythology Joseph of Arimathea is the man who most notably provided a tomb for Jesus after his crucifixion. Joseph is said to have travelled to Glastonbury – bringing Christianity with him. He is said to have planted the Holy Thorn (Hawthorn) Tree by thrusting his staff, made from the same thorn tree that produced the Crown of Thorns used at Jesus’s crucifixion, into the ground. The resulting tree, also known as the "Tree of Life," flourished producing blooms not only in the spring, but also in winter during Christmastide in celebration of Christ’s birth. Joseph of Arimathea’s presence in Glastonbury and the narrative of the Holy Thorn Tree firmly root Christian religious practice in England. Joseph’s presence in the area also lends credence to other Christian relics revered in England. For example the Holy Grail – the chalice used by Jesus at the Last Supper – later finds its history intertwined with Arthurian legend.

Drawing of a kern-baby          Pencil sketch of a tree by Katharine Maltwood          Javanese Tree of Life from          


Like many others living during the Victorian era, including artists influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement, Katharine Maltwood exhibited strong interests in folklore, mythology (including Arthurian legends which explored themes of chivalry, nobility, failure, and redemption), mysticism, and the occult. Her personal search for spiritual enlightenment aligned with larger Victorian-era concerns regarding sin, penitence, and the quest for salvation.

As evidenced by the number of newspaper and magazine clippings about the Holy Thorn Tree collected by Katharine Maltwood, along with the various tree imagry she created, the artist was fascinated by the folklore behind it and other English legends. For example, Maltwood sketched the kern baby (or corn dolly) for her book, The Enchantments of Britain. The folk-tradition of creating kern dollies was as a symbol of the fertility of the land and rebirth as well as harvest-time celebration. Like the kern dolly, the legend of the miraculous winter-blooming Holy Thorn Tree, as well as the varied legends of the Holy Grail associated with King Arthur, express notions of rebirth related to both the land and fertility, as well as Christian resurrection. The English traditions sought and celebrated by Katharine Maltwood demonstrate a coming together of Christian and Celtic folkloric practices.


A hawthorn tree, purportedly taken as a graft from the Holy Thorn Tree at Glastonbury and planted by Katharine Maltwood, is located outside the UVic University Centre where the Maltwood Art Museum and Gallery was housed from 1978 - 2011. Visit the campus to see for yourself if UVic's own Holy Thorn Tree blooms at Christmastide!