From an apple held by the infant Jesus to a fowl indelicately handled by a lusty kitchen maid, food and drink appear in myriad contexts over four centuries of European painting. The practice of depicting food and feasting stretches back through the Middle Ages to ancient Greece and Rome, where banquets and bacchanals were consuming passions celebrated in literature, painting, and mosaics (as in the trompe l’oeil “unswept floor” mosaic from the emperor Hadrian’s villa at Tivoli, littered with fish bones, fruit pits, nutshells, and other dining table scraps). In the fifteenth century, artists took increasing inspiration from the culture of antiquity and from the natural world, and began to depict objects such as fruits, sweets, and wine vessels, as well as flora and fauna, in both devotional and secular images. These items allowed the artist to display virtuosic skills of observation and description of color, shape, and texture. They also often carried a symbolic meaning or an allusion to the painting’s subject.
The symbolism of food and drink has roots in classical literature. Fruits, nuts, herbs, and grain are discussed in treatises on farming and natural history, and appear widely in mythology as attributes of gods and goddesses—grapes for Bacchus, god of wine; a sheaf of corn or wheat for Ceres, the grain goddess—and in metaphors for virtue and vice. Early religious writings such as the Bible and the Apocrypha, and Christian texts of the Middle Ages and Renaissance are also rich in this imagery, often borrowing from pagan symbolism and occasionally supplanting it. The pomegranate, for example, is depicted in mythological paintings as an attribute of Venus and a symbol of desire, fertility—because of its many seeds—and marriage, but appears as frequently in sacred images of the Virgin and Child. There are several legends of the pomegranate’s creation, contributing to its symbolic potency; according to one, it grew out of blood streaming from the wounded genitals of the lustful Acdestis. The pomegranate is perhaps best known, however, for its fateful role in the myth of Proserpina. Ovid tells in the Metamorphoses of Proserpina’s abduction by Pluto, ruler of the Underworld. Proserpina’s mother, Ceres, secured her release from Hades, but, before leaving Proserpina, ate the seeds from a pomegranate and, because she had consumed food in the Underworld, was compelled to spend part of every year there. Proserpina’s cyclical descent to Hades and rise to Earth was believed to bring about the changing of seasons, and the pomegranate was thus seen as a symbol of resurrection and immortality.
In Christian imagery, the pomegranate serves much the same purpose, as in three examples from the Museum’s collection: one of about 1485 by the Florentine painter Filippino Lippi (49.7.10), and two by the Netherlandish Joos van Cleve (32.100.57; 1982.60.47) from the first quarter of the sixteenth century. In the Joos panels, the Virgin is depicted as a noblewoman, elegantly attired and seated before a ledge ranged with a bowl of fruit, a nut, and a filled wineglass. The latter, as well as the bunch of grapes in 1982.60.47, allude to the Last Supper, when Jesus gave wine to his disciples and said, “This cup is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for you” (Luke 22:20). A halved nut, according to the twelfth-century Abbot Adam of Perseigne, symbolized the Holy Trinity, because it had three parts: an outer marrow, a shell, and an inner kernel. In the Old Testament, it was written that Aaron’s rod blossomed and bore nuts, foreshadowing Christ’s Incarnation. Beyond their allusive nature, the nut and other components of the still life serve a decorative purpose as well, and were delicacies not uncommon to a gentlewoman’s table.
Many other fruits appear in Western painting, all having some possible symbolism. The most recognizable, and perhaps the most widely used, is the apple. Because the Latin word for “apple” and “evil” are the same—malum—the apple was associated with the Tree of Knowledge from which Eve ate forbidden fruit, causing the downfall of Man. The infant Jesus is frequently depicted with an apple (32.100.57; 1982.60.47) to signify his role as Redeemer from sin and death. In a Madonna and Child by Carlo Crivelli (49.7.5), a festoon of apples and a cucumber-like gourd represent the triumph of Salvation over Damnation: the gourd was associated with the former because in the biblical story of Jonah, God caused a gourd to grow over the prophet’s head as a shelter. The apple is not the only fruit proffered by the figure of Christ in painting: often he holds a pomegranate, cherries—which could allude both to the child’s sweetness and to the sacrifice of his blood—or a quince (08.183.1). The quince was sacred to the ancients as an attribute of Venus and an emblem of marriage and fertility, and according to Pliny a cutting from the quince tree would form another tree when planted. It was thus associated with immortality.
By the seventeenth century, still-life painting flourished as an independent genre, particularly in the Netherlands, Italy, and Spain. Lombard painter Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571–1610) did much to advance this genre by including still-life elements—considered shockingly naturalistic by some contemporary viewers—into religious and allegorical works. In The Musicians (52.81), Cupid is shown at left with a bunch of grapes, “because music was invented to keep spirits happy, as does wine” (Ripa). Foodstuffs and serving vessels depicted with exquisite realism and detail enjoyed enormous popularity among an affluent clientele who could appreciate not only the skillful rendering of such subjects but also the significance of the objects depicted. Expensive delicacies such as shellfish (1971.254) and lemons (53.111), and hunting trophies of game and fowl (50.55) were associated with a privileged lifestyle which the owner was either accustomed to or, more likely, wished to be identified with. In many still-life paintings, comestible items serve no obvious allegorical purpose, or may be viewed as general reminders of the transient nature of luxury, the virtue of temperance, or the perils of gluttony.
In genre scenes, however, artists of the period frequently used “meaningful” food imagery to exuberant—and often outrageous—effect. Frans Hals‘s painting of revelers at Vastenavond (known elsewhere as Mardi Gras) includes two stock figures from popular comedy: Pekelharing, or Pickled Herring, and Hans Worst, or John Sausage (14.40.605). Pekelharing wears a garland of Shrovetide victuals, including salted herring and mussels, which symbolized the male and female genitals, respectively. Eggs, also present in the garland, were considered an aphrodisiac and symbolized male prowess or, when cracked (as here), impotence. The figure wears a pig’s trotter, symbol of gluttony, at his waist. Sausages dangle from Hans Worst’s cap and are also on the table, which is strewn with an array of items alluding to “male” and “female” forms. The abundance of phallic imagery coupled with the obscene gestures of the figures made this image too lewd for the average household. It may have been painted for the private enjoyment of an enthusiast of bawdy comedy or for a chamber of rederijkers, or rhetoricians, who put on farcical plays. More likely to be found in a domestic setting, but no less laden with carnal imagery, is Peter Wtewael’s scene of a young man flirting with a comely kitchen maid (06.288). The theme descended from Pieter Aertsen (1507/8–1575) and in early examples conveyed religious and ethical ideas while entertaining the viewer with scenes from everyday life. Dutch authors such as Erasmus (1466?–1536) and Dirck Volkertsz Coornhert (1522–1590) condemned, in the latter’s words, “the most contemptible occupations which serve the appetites, such as fishmongers, butchers, cooks, pastrycooks, perfume-sellers, dancers, and all manner of gamesters.” Contemporary viewers would have been familiar with this kind of admonition; nevertheless, the mood in Wtewael’s kitchen is lighthearted. Jan Steen provides a view of the chaos that overruns a household when appetites go unchecked (1982.60.31). Here, an elegant arrangement of fruit stands in for gluttony and the potentially corruptive nature of luxury among a veritable catalogue of vices represented by various objects. In the same canvas, an ample joint of meat sits on the floor for the cat to snatch away. The mistress of the house is clearly too focused on the refilling of her wineglass to notice this or the amorous entanglement of her husband and the serving maid.
The symbolic potency of this kind of imagery lived on into the eighteenth century, even as the popularity of genre painting waned in the Netherlands. French painter Jean Baptiste Greuze (1725–1805) modeled his canvas of 1756 (20.155.8) on a work by Frans van Mieris the Elder (1635–1681). In it, the young woman’s woeful expression may be attributed to the basket of broken eggs beside her, and not merely because it represents the loss of her next meal. The presence of a dismayed young man and an accusing old woman indicates that lost virtue is really the matter at hand. Meanwhile, a little boy attempts to repair one of the broken eggs, reminding the viewer of the uncorrupted innocence of childhood.
Meagher, Jennifer. “Food and Drink in European Painting, 1400–1800.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/food/hd_food.htm (May 2009)
Barnes, Donna R., and Peter G. Rose. Matters of Taste: Food and Drink in Seventeenth-Century Dutch Art and Life. Albany, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 2002.
Levi D'Ancona, Mirella. The Garden of the Renaissance: Botanical Symbolism in Italian Painting. Florence: L. S. Olschki, 1977.
Schneider, Hildegard. "On the Pomegranate." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 4, no. 4 (December 1945), pp. 117–20.