Sex, sensuality and sin: fruit symbolism in art

Still Life with Fruit on a Stone Ledge (c.1605) by Caravaggio

Despite seeming the most unassuming of objects, fruit carry the power to cause quite a stir. The appeal of the different colours, textures and associated scents has made them an important tool for artists, who rely on appealing to people’s senses to communicate their messages. Most fruit in paintings act as supplements to the human subjects in the piece. But even in paintings in which the fruit are the sole focus, there are allusions to deeper and often sensual meanings that tell us a lot about the artist.

Once you notice certain fruity details, such as the stem of a particular melon pointing towards a burst fig or two chunky gourds languidly lying over a pair of melons, it’s impossible to ignore the implicit meanings. The interpretations are, of course, endless but here are five fruits and what they symbolise in the world of art.

1) Apple

Adam and Eve (c.1507) by Albrecht Dürer

The story of Adam and Eve gave the apple somewhat of a bad rep. Technically, the bible doesn’t even say that the forbidden fruit was an apple – the Latin word for ‘apple’ is malum, which literally translated means ‘fruit’ (or ‘evil’). Yet it is the apple that has become associated with temptation and sin. And since Eve was believed to be the temptress to instigate the “fall of Man” back in the Garden of Eden, paintings of the pair often portray her holding an apple, as demonstrated in Albrecht Dürer’s classical depiction in Adam and Eve (c. 1507).

Despite Genesis and the constant allusion to Original Sin, apples are also thought to symbolise beauty and prosperity. The fruit is an attribute associated with Venus – the Roman goddess of beauty and prosperity. Artists like Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Daniel Mauch have shown her holding an apple.

2) Pomegranate

Proserpine (1874) by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

The pomegranate is possibly the most interesting of all fruits in the art world. There are many legends surrounding its origin. According to Greek mythology, it grew out of blood pouring from the wounded penis of Acdestis – a violent, promiscuous god whose genitals were tied up by Bacchus (more about him later). Apparently a nymph then ate the fruit and became pregnant as a result.

The story of Acdestis and the fruit’s many seeds are what created the link to fertility. In Cornelis de Vos’s Family Portrait (c.1630), the pomegranate is clearly visible in the mother’s right hand. With nine children sitting around her, and fertile-looking land in the background, the viewer will find it difficult to think of anything but the lady’s childbearing abilities.

Perhaps the most well-known symbolism associated with the pomegranate, as seen in Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Proserpine (c.1874), is that of temptation and a fall from grace. The myth of Proserpine in Greek and Roman mythology saw the goddess, who was taken to the underworld and forced into marriage by Pluto despite her love for someone else, get tempted to eat a pomegranate. This slip-up is what would stop her from absolute freedom, and bind her to Pluto in the underworld for six months of every year.

What makes this even more interesting is that the artist’s muse and lover Jane Morris, who posed as Proserpine for the painting, was in fact married. The two would spend every summer together, and then Jane would return to her husband in the winter. The aptly placed pomegranate had a fateful role in the lives of both Jane and Proserpine.

3) Fig

The Fig-Leaf 1922 by Francis Picabia 1879-1953
La Feuille de vigne (1922) by Francis Picabia

Just like the apple, the fig – its leaf in particular – has strong religious connotations in Western art. The tree from which it grows was the third tree to be mentioned in the Bible. In this context, the fruit can symbolise both knowledge and the loss of innocence that comes with wisdom. After Adam and Eve gave into temptation and became aware of their nudity, they laced fig leaves together and used that to cover themselves. The fig leaf can be seen as a symbol of modesty in the Dürer piece mentioned earlier.

In Greco-Roman culture, the fig is associated with female genitalia. Mainly because figs split at the seam, are quite red and give off an overall vulvic vibe. The Greek word for ‘fig’ is the same as the word for ‘vulva’ (sykon), and in other Romance languages, such as italian, the word for ‘fig’ (fica) also means ‘pussy’.

The fig leaf also led artists to question the notion of modesty and to realise that it was a deeply patriarchal one. Throughout the Italian Renaissance period from the 14th century to the 16th, painters and sculptors would display men’s genitalia but would insist on covering a woman’s vulva with a fig leaf. To challenge this, contemporary artists then re-appropriated it as a symbol of censorship. Avant-garde artist Francis Picabia used the fig leaf as a reference to censorship in his 1922 painting La Feuille de vigne

4) Grapes

Bacchus (c.1638) by Peter Paul Rubens

In a Christian context, grapes are linked to salvation in their symbolic connection to Jesus’ blood, as seen in Dutch artist Joos van Cleve’s Virgin and Child (c.1525). But they’re more often linked to wine, which is then in turn associated with debauchery – or what some people might nowadays call a “good time”. In Greek mythology grapes were attributed to Bacchus (remember him?), the god of wine and intoxication who is also known as Dionysus. In Peter Paul Rubens’ Bacchus (c.1638) we see the god of wine in all his glory, having what appears to be a sesh. The grapes on the corpulent subject’s head are hard to miss.

5) Peach

Boy with a Basket of Fruit (c.1593) by Caravaggio

As well as representing virtue and honour in some contexts, the peach often carries erotic associations. This was particularly relevant during Italian painter Caravaggio’s time. His painting titled Boy With a Basket of Fruit (c.1593) has raised many questions about homoeroticism in his work. The boy’s facial expression and exposed skin on his defined shoulder already make the viewer think that he’s offering himself in addition to the basket of fruit. This idea is certainly heightened by the exquisite looking peaches that appear just below the subject’s exposed skin. The red blush on the peaches brings out the faint rosiness on the boy’s cheeks. Of course we can’t ignore the other fruit in the basket and all the symbolism they carry. Now that you have some idea of what different fruit represent in art, what do you think was going through Caravaggio’s mind while painting this?

Hanna Yusuf

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