Monday, May 23, 2011

Citrus Fruits in Art

The Fruit of Promise: Citrus Fruits in Art and Culture at the Germanisches National Museum, Nuremberg, Germany

The Italian sculpture 'Orange' from the 18th century is pictured during the exhibition
'Fruits of Promise.'
citrus fruits in art and culture' at the Germanic National museum in Nuremberg, Germany. The museum presents the world of citrus fruits with more than 200 objects from 13th century until 11 September 2011. EPA/DANIEL KARMANN.

Oranges and lemons are found in portraits since the 15th century. Varied meanings are tied up with the fruits. In the Baroque age, it was popular to symbolize the descent of a portrait subject from the Dutch ruling dynasty of Orange by a small fruit-bearing orange tree. Often a citrus fruit represented the social or moral status of the portrait subjects. But citrus fruits could also point to personal botanical preferences and to dream destinations in Southern climes.

Many 17th century  portraits of children show the portrayed subjects with a citrus fruit in their hand and a dog by their side. According to the conception of the time, the child as the fruit of the parents gradually gained maturity - hinted at by the citrus fruit - through the upbringing, symbolized by the dog.

Time and again citrus fruits were also associated with the subject of weddings, marriage and love. This traces back to the golden apples of the Hesperides which already in the classical myths were a wedding gift and a beauty prize.

Religion: Adam's Apple
Since time immemorial the citron has been playing an important part in the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles, in which the gathering in of the harvest is celebrated for a week in fall. To this day it is used in the morning prayer, together with the festal bouquet of purple willow, myrtle and palm.

The citron, called “etrog” in the Talmud, is of highly symbolic value in the Jewish faith. As the fruit of the biblical 'goodly tree', it was equated with the fruit of the tree of knowledge, of which Adam and Eve ate. At the same time, the etrog symbolizes the Jewish hope of paradise.

Customs: Illness and Death
In German-speaking Europe, lemons and bitter oranges played an important part in various customs surrounding illness, death and funeral. The earliest known depiction of a deceased with a citrus fruit in his hand is to be found on the 1247/48 tomb of Count Henry of Sayn and his daughter. The citrus fruit symbolizes the hope of resurrection and eternal life.

It was primarily lemons that from the Baroque age to the mid-20th century were put into the hand of the laid-out body, carried by the mourners, the pall bearers and the clergyman in the funeral procession, and cast into the open grave of the deceased. By inhaling its strong scent people wanted to protect themselves from the smell of decay and from the communication of diseases. In the Baroque age, the number of lemons brought to a funeral procession served at the same time as an indicator of the prestige of the deceased and his family.

In addition, lemons in particular served as get-well gifts for sick people, due to their medicinal properties.

Still Life: A Feast for the Eyes and Sensuous Delight
Around 1600, still life painting developed in Italy and the Netherlands as a distinct genre from religious painting. Citrus fruits played an important part in them from the outset, which is attributable, apart from the fruits' exoticism and value, to their importance as a Marian symbol. This religious interpretation manifests itself in the simply composed Spanish fruit still lifes until the 17th century. However, the botanically exact documentation of the various citrus varieties was also a significant stimulus for their depiction, primarily in the Italian still lifes.

In the 17th century, the charging of the still life with inner meaning as well as the virtuosic composition of selected objects and citrus fruits was brought to a climax by the Dutch. In their paintings citrus fruits can be interpreted as an exhortation to moderation in the midst of portrayed luxury. At the same time the bright citrus fruits with their pitted skins and the transparently shimmering pulp provided an opportunity for the artists to display their skills. Insects, dew drops and traces of fruit decay added a theme of temporality to the still lifes and heightened the virtuosity by yet another element.

In the still lifes of the modern age, citrus fruits appear freed from any symbolic meaning, providing instead a scope for experiments with color and composition without, however, entirely breaking with the traditional formal canon.

Botany: Artifact and Miracle of Nature
For centuries well-to-do garden lovers and patricians in these climes have collected and enjoyed citruses. The scent of the delicate flowers, the bright colors of the fruit and the bitter-sweet taste of their juice made them something special. In the Middle Ages they had already found their way into many areas of life in Central Europe. They were coveted as seasoning and as remedies, for the strange and exotic was deemed particularly efficacious. Thus the illustrators of botanical books discovered the exotic plants, too. Examples from the incunabula era (1440-1500) reveal that the non-local plants were known from hearsay rather than first-hand. Only in the 16th century when botany was established as a scientific discipline were plants rendered realistically. As time passed, details like the development of the blossom and the ripening process of the fruit came more and more to the fore in the illustrations. It was the works of Maria Sibylla Merian that first elevated the illustration of plants to an art: She knew how to combine science and art.

Citrus Trade: Golden Apples Traveling
Some citrus varieties like sour lemons and thick-skinned citrons have been known to the Western world since antiquity. However, it is uncertain when trading with these and other citrus fruits began in Central Europe. Not until around 1400 is there increased evidence of goods traffic along Central European long-distance trade routes involving these exotic fruits.

The bustling activity in German cities has been recorded in so-called street cries since the late 16th century. These graphic works bear witness to the variety of commodities sold in large cities like Cologne, Hamburg or Vienna. The depicted vendors in most cases also include lemon vendors who with cries like “Beautiful lemons and oranges” try to bring the offered fruits to the attention of customers passing by. At that time tropical fruits have already ceased to be an exclusive luxury good that made its way only to the tables of royal and princely courts. Still they remain a special indulgence. The colorful orange wrappers in which the fruit has been wrapped since the 18th century to protect them from damage in transit and rot may perhaps be considered as the most obvious expression of their appreciation.

In the 19th century the worldwide cultivation of citrus fruits goes hand in hand with their growing consumption in broader levels of the population, both as fresh fruit and processed into lemonade. The two world wars of the 20th century mark a deep break here, too: In post-war Germany fresh oranges became a rarity again, of which we are reminded by their presence on German Christmas plates even today.

Table Culture: Culinary Art and Table Decoration
Citruses adorn the festive table in Italy and Spain as early as the beginning of the Renaissance.They are reproduced initially in faience, later in silver, porcelain and glass.

In Germany it was only in the 17th century that citrus fruits increasingly contributed to the table decoration. Augsburg and Nuremberg were famous for the manufacture of silver centerpieces in basket form. By the end of the 18th century centerpieces known as plats ménage appear, providing vinegar, oil and spices for the meal. The crowning center of each centerpiece was a lemon basket filled with fresh fruit.

Often silver or porcelain lemons were also used as jar knobs. In addition, porcelain figures decorated the tables of upper-class parties. Among the best-known rococo figures are the reproductions of Paris street vendors, which, known as the Cris de Paris series, originate around 1744. Here, too, the lemon vendor or 'lemon monger' is to be found.

Orangeries: Conceived Space
From the 16th century on, citruses were transported across the Alps to the North in increasing numbers. In central Europe, the valuable plants developed into important mobile elements of decoration in the French formal garden in summer. To overwinter the sensitive tub plants, bitter orange houses and orangeries, which became a permanent feature of princely palace grounds, were built. Linked to the orangery was the ideal of classical antiquity and of the mythical Garden of the Hesperides where trees bearing golden apples flourish.

Treatises on architecture and gardens, especially between 1650 and 1750, focus on orangery culture and the architectural development of orangeries. The era of great representative works in the 1st half of the 18th century begins with Johann Friedrich Nette and Matthias Diesel and reaches its climax and end with Salomon Kleiner's copperplate prints.

Apart from the etrog, the Adam's apple is another citrus fruit that since the late Middle Ages has been identified as the paradisiacal fruit of the tree of knowledge. In the Ghent Altarpiece, Eve is portrayed for the first time with one such Adam's apple in her hand. Especially in devotional pictures of Mary and the infant Jesus the Adam's apple becomes a frequently used symbol of the overcoming of the Fall by Mary, the new Eve, and Jesus, the new Adam.

The citruses' distinctive feature of simultaneously bearing fragrant white blossoms and fruit made citrus fruits popular attributes of the Virgin Mary. The blossoms symbolize Mary's virginity, the fruit her pure motherhood.

Johann Christoph Volkamer and His Work on the Hesperides
Citrus fruits came into fashion in the Baroque age. Hardly another fruit has since been given as much attention as the evergreen, simultaneously blossoming and fruit-bearing plants on which especially the so-called Hesperides literature focuses. In the early 18th century the Nuremberg merchant Johann Christoph Volkamer created the two-volume standard work on the culture of citrus fruits, still accepted today: “Nürnbergische Hesperiden” (“Nuremberg Hesperides”) and their “Continuation”.

His etchings were created based on his own observations of the fruits that Volkamer raised in great numbers in his Nuremberg garden and received from other garden owners at home and abroad. Each folio combines the life-size rendering of a fruit with a topographical view, which lends the work its unique charm. The first volume shows views of Nuremberg Patricians' and burghers' gardens; the second, the villas of Veneto. (Picture and edited article courtesy of

1 comment:

  1. I've heard of the golden apples in a mythological contest which started the Trojan War, but am now fascinated how artists have used fruit in paintings to convey many layers of meanings!