Pomegranates are one of those seasonal fruits which show up at my grocery store along with tangerines and other Florida citrus fruits. When I was young, these were rare and extraordinary foods, unlike today, when we have fresh fruits from all corners of the world all year long. The only difference is the cost: if they come from nearby, they cost less than if they come from afar. When my daddy was a boy, fresh citrus at Christmas were a treat indeed.
Those that want to go back to the “good old days” often forget food was sometimes hard to get, for earlier generations also had supply chain disruptions as well as economic collapses. In the Depression Era, food became a gift, for it was often hard to come by. Oranges had a secondary meaning, for since they had segments, they could be shared. The lesson was all gifts were meant to be shared with others.
In art, the paintings of the saints follow a certain iconography, or visual images and symbols used in a work of art. Once we learn this language, we can “read the icon” and understand its meaning. The pomegranate typically stands for the Christian church, for it has many seeds within one fruit. In earlier Greek and Roman mythology, the fruit stands for Persephone/Proserpina, the daughter of Demeter/Ceres, the goddess of harvest and agriculture. Pluto, the god of the underworld, abducted Persephone for his wife. Ceres became despondent and nothing above ground would grow. The Olympian gods arranged Persephone’s release, but she eaten a few seeds of a pomegranate. Therefore, she could spend only part of the year above ground. This is how the ancients explained the seasons.
This story illustrates how Persephone became connected to the idea of dying and rebirth, so her symbol, the pomegranate, also transferred over into Christian art as a symbol of immortality and resurrection. The term for appropriation of another culture’s symbol is syncretism. In a similar manner, in mythology, the dove was an attribute of Aphrodite/Venus; but in the Old Testament, Noah’s dove signified God’s covenant with mankind; and in the New testament, John the Baptist likened the dove to the Holy Spirit, which descended upon Jesus at his baptism. Painted pomegranates can be found on the frescoes of the Roman catacombs of Torlonia.
The imagery continued into the 5th century in a floor mosaic with a cross, stylized fish, pomegranates, and three chevrons representing Golgotha. Death on the cross is connected with the resurrection appearance of Christ and the disciples’ meal on the beach at Galilee.
Fra Angelico’s Virgin and Child with Pomegranate is a beautiful example of a late icon. The Virgin of the Pomegranate takes its name from the pomegranate held by the Virgin and which attracts the attention of the Christ Child, who touches it. In this context the fruit has a double meaning: in the Virgin’s hands it refers to her chastity, while by touching it the Christ Child prefigures his own death and resurrection. It reminds us of Ephesians 5:25-26–
“Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, in order to make her holy by cleansing her with the washing of water by the word.”
This iconography of chastity, cleanliness, and sacrifice was widely used in 15th-century Florence, where it interested artists such as Sandro Botticelli and Leonardo da Vinci.
The unicorn, a mythical animal to all but eight year old girls (and those of us who retain our eight year old hearts inside our full grown bodies), is a creature of fantasy, both then and now. From the same era as the Virgin of the Pomegranate is the beautiful tapestry of “The Unicorn in Captivity,” now at the Metropolitan, which may have been created as a single image rather than part of a series. In this instance, the unicorn probably represents the beloved tamed. Tethered to a tree and constrained by a fence, we see he could escape, for the chain isn’t secure and the fence is low enough to step over.
Clearly, however, his confinement is a happy one, to which the ripe, seed-laden pomegranates in the tree—a medieval symbol of fertility and marriage—testify. The red stains on his flank don’t appear to be blood, for we see no visible wounds. Instead, they represent juice dripping from bursting pomegranates in the tree above. Many of the other plants represented here, such as wild orchid, bistort, and thistle, echo this theme of marriage and procreation; they were acclaimed in the Middle Ages as fertility aids for both men and women. Even the little frog, nestled among the violets at the lower right, was cited by medieval writers for its noisy mating.
Botticelli also painted his version of the Madonna and the Pomegranate about 1487. This painting now hangs in the Uffizi, in Florence, Italy. The Virgin seems aloof, reserved, or far away, as does the Christ child. The angels in attendance also seem not connected to one another or engaged with the viewer. They carry roses and lilies, flowers connected with purity. One angel has the Latin words of the beginning of the rosary on his clothing, which is notable since this prayer became popular in devotions in the 15th century. The baby holds a pomegranate, cut open to reveal the multiple seeds of suffering.
Botticelli was influenced by the loss of his patrons, the Medici family, and the rise of Savonarola, a Dominican monk, who wanted to not only reform a corrupt church, but also redeem a materialistic and humanistic society. He was the very opposite of the trade oriented and culturally progressive Medici family. Moreover, as the year 1500 approached, Savonarola preached an apocalyptic message of the end of the world. Botticelli’s delightful Birth of Venus would give way to the 1497 Mystical Crucifixion. Things didn’t end well for Savonarola, who was tried, convicted of heresy, hanged, and burned in 1498. Florence then returned to the city’s prior communal ideals, led by the next generation of the Medici family.
Often attributed to Da Vinci or Verrocchio, this Madonna and Child with a Pomegranate by Lorenzo di Credi, now in the National Gallery of Art, was painted in 1475-1480. He and da Vinci apprenticed under the same master, so their styles show some similarities. He’s better known for his portraits.
I brought the pomegranates to art class because the new year deserves a new start and a new way of thinking about our lives. In the sacrament of holy communion, we recognize “many are made one,” for how many individual grains are ground for the bread and how many grapes must be crushed to fill a cup? I keep thinking of that Lucy and Ethel skit from I Love Lucy—you just knew walking in a circle in a grape vat would not end well, but you held your breath waiting to burst out laughing. Lucy’s comedic genius never failed us.
The joy of abundance jumps out in the bold brush strokes and colors of Mike’s painting. He loves coming to class, for it’s a time when he’s free. No one’s life depends on him in this time. He can give expression to this sense of freedom.
When we elevate the elements over the altar, we remind ourselves, “the one loaf is broken for all, just as the one cup is offered for all.” The pomegranates have many seeds, but they’re one fruit. The pomegranate reminds us of the mystical body of Christ, which we call the church. When we take communion, we receive the symbolic body of Christ, but we also receive the mystical body. We often limit ourselves to thinking the body of Christ is his actual body or perhaps only our church fellowship. We often forget there’s a greater body of Christ beyond our doors, and it’s not just formed of all the believers. The greater body of Christ is all of humanity, for we all share the same incarnation of his spirit.
In several ways we can open our eyes to the “many within the one.” We can trace the history of the symbols we use to communicate our hopes and dreams with one another. Some of these are positive and worth keeping, but others might need retirement, under the “it’s good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that makes your brother or sister stumble” (Romans 14:21). We get attached to the visible symbol, failing to realize others see the same symbol as harmful. For instance, some are so attached to their “authorized version” of a scripture translation, they idolize it above all other translations. In doing so, they make the vehicle more important than the content. No one would ever make an Amazon Prime delivery truck more important than its content, but we sure get distressed when our package gets mangled in shipping. I personally use an ebook for my Bible now, since it has more recent and multiple translations plus a Greek New Testament. Nevertheless, the God revealed is more important than the object itself, as we’re reminded twice in Exodus 20:2-3 and Deuteronomy 5:6-7:
“I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.”
Gail is always careful to look closely for the details in everything she paints. Naturalism is her calling. In our brief time together, she might not finish her work, but finishing isn’t the goal. Learning to see is our goal and the secondary goal is making a likeness. The detail on the crown of the pomegranate is superb.
Sally has a good rendering of the pomegranate, yet she was unhappy with the background. We solved part of that together by identifying how the horizontal line dipped down at the intersection with the outer edges of the fruit. It’s a straight line now, because she fixed the places where the Hulk had hit the table behind the pomegranate. (If only we could do this in real life, disaster recovery would be a piece of cake). She has a circular pattern working, since she’s working on another piece with this same idea. It’s another example of how art is a continuity, not an isolated moment in time.
I went home to finish my painting. I took a photo to have a reference, rather than just painting from memory. As soon as I was in my quiet place, I realized my perspective was off—I could tell because the plate on which the fruit was resting didn’t break at the right height of the fruit. White overpainting fixed that problem. Our blue table cover, which has paint stains on it, became my background. As I told the class, my painting is brighter because it’s a primary color scheme: red, yellow, and blue. I also painted the juices, the secondary shadows, and the highlights of the nibs. Adding earth colors or black to a painting darkens its tone considerably.
Can we break old habits right away? If those who start a diet in the New Year have anything to teach us, restricting our eating lasts for about 10 days at best before we begin to cheat on it. Strava, a fitness brand, named January 19th “Quitter’s Day,” since most people ditch their fitness resolutions then. Our question then becomes, how do we learn something new? How do we make progress? Perhaps, are we teachable, or willing to grow beyond what we know? The last question calls us to step out of our safe places, as Peter did when he stepped out of the boat onto the storming waves. When he was frightened, he called out, “Lord, save me!”
The good news about art class is no one will drown if we struggle to make what’s in our mind come out on our canvas. Sometimes our ideas are ahead of our technical abilities. Some days we’re tired or distracted. If I’m coming down sick, but not “sick sick” enough to be home, my work looks dead. It’s a sure sign I need to visit the doctor soon!
Next week we’re going to do color theory. We need to revisit the color wheel and make some of the interesting colors that don’t come straight from the tube. We’ll paint in squares, so this is a “entry level” class. Actually, all classes are entry level. Like a one room schoolhouse, you enter at your own level and progress from there. Your only competition is you. There’s no grades, no pass or fail. We come to give our best self a chance to grow and shine.
We’ll also be wearing masks again, due to that pesky omicron variant.
Joy and peace,
Signs & Symbols in Christian Art – George Ferguson, George Wells Ferguson – Google Books
Jewish Catacombs: The Jews of Rome: funeral rites and customs – Elsa Laurenzi – Google Books
Vaults of Memory—Roman Catacombs
Why We Put Oranges in Christmas Stockings
Sandro Botticelli | Biography, Paintings, Birth of Venus, Primavera, & Facts | Britannica
The Museo del Prado acquires The Virgin of the Pomegranate by Fra Angelico for €18m
A Study of 800 Million Activities Predicts Most New Year’s Resolutions Will Be Abandoned on January 19: How to Create New Habits That Actually Stick | Inc.com
Guido di Pietro, known as Fra Angelico: Virgin and Child with Pomegranate, or The Virgin and Child with two Angels, or The Virgin of the Pomegranate, c.1426. Tempera on panel, 83 x 59 cm, Prado, Madrid.
Unknown Artists: The Unicorn Rests in a Garden (from the Unicorn Tapestries), weaving, Made in Paris, France (cartoon); Made in Southern Netherlands (woven), Wool warp with wool, silk, silver, and gilt wefts, 1495–1505, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of John D. Rockefeller Jr., 1937, Accession Number: 37.80.6.