Symbolism
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The Strawberry: A Symbol of Perfection
& Righteousness

Elaine Jordan
STRAWBERRY letter manuscript

The strawberry decorates an illuminated manuscript

There is ample evidence that medieval art is permeated with symbolism and that every object had its own particular significance. Certain symbols originated in Scripture like the Cross; fish and the thorn were carried on through Catholic tradition.

Others developed gradually in the Catholic medieval ambiences that referred everything of Creation back to the Creator, seeking to find His mark and the meaning imprinted on every rock, flower, tree and animal.

The rose represented majesty and purity; the carnation, besides its natural distinction, also symbolized the nails of the Crucifixion because of the shape of its calyx; the lion represented royalty and courage.

I was surprised recently when a friend told me that the medievals considered the strawberry a symbol of sexual temptation because of its many seeds and its ephemeral odor that is hardly remembered after passing – reflecting the transient nature of earthly pleasures.

This explanation derives not from medieval lore, but from an article about the strange strawberries in Hieronymus Bosch's panel, The Garden of Earthly Delights, known for its eerie, occult tone.

bosch strawberry

Bosch' strange occult depictions of the strawberry

Painted in the early 16th century, it is certainly not medieval, but reflects the corrupted mentality of certain European areas that generated Protestantism. In fact, Bosch's works are better described as a prefigure of the hideous world of today's modern art.

To save the reputation of the strawberry – which charmingly decorates the pages of many medieval manuscripts – I searched for the symbolism it had for the man of the Middle Ages. In a 450-page book titled quite simply The Strawberry (Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1966) by renowned horticulturalist George M. Darrow, I found everything I needed to confirm my hunch that, indeed, in Catholic tradition, the strawberry was never considered a voluptuous or evil fruit, but rather something quite innocent and good.

Strawberries represent the good fruits of the righteous man

Quite early in medieval art and lore we find the strawberry plant of the Earthly Paradise. This probably derives from a passage in Ovid (Metamorphoses), who says that in the Golden Age the earth spontaneously provided fruit for man to enjoy, and names the strawberry as one of these salubrious delights.

pentecost

Strawberries adorn scenes of the Pentecost and St. Michael vanquishing the devil

st michael strawberry
By the 1300s, it is common to find strawberries pictured in Italian, Flemish and German art as well as in English miniatures as a symbol of perfect righteousness. Why? Because, the Symbol-Fibel tells us, medieval man believed the strawberry to be a cure for depressive illnesses; thus, its presence suggests the healing powers of Christ that lead us to eternal salvation.

Further, it stands "for noble thought and modesty, for although it is conspicuous by its color and fragrance, it nevertheless bows humbly to the earth." (Darrow, p. 13)

Its three-partitioned leaf is a reminder of the Holy Trinity. The fruits, pointing downward, are the drops of Blood of Christ, and the five petals of its white flower, His five Wounds. (ibid.)

St. Francis de Sales, who considered that virtue is represented in nature, speaks of the righteous and incorruptible nature of the strawberry, untouched by any poison around it:

"In tilling our gardens we cannot but admire the fresh innocence and purity of the strawberry, because although it creeps along the ground, and is continually crushed by serpents, lizards and other venomous reptiles, yet it does not imbibe the slightest impression of poison or the smallest malignant quality, a true sign that it has no affinity with poison. " (On the Love of God, book 1, c. 2)

In this way, he continues, the strawberry reminds us of the virtuous man, who is not influenced by the malice of sin that surrounds him.

Thus, as a symbol of perfection and righteousness, medieval stone masons carved strawberry designs on altars and around the tops of pillars in churches and cathedrals.

The ornamentation of these magnificent cathedrals and churches sang the medieval admiration for nature, an appreciation for all the spring delights – garlands of flowers, winding twines of ivy and the greatly coveted fraise des bois (strawberries) with its red fruit and white blossoms.

'Fruitful Virgin,' in flower & fruit at the same time

In particular, we find the strawberry in paintings depicting Our Lady, on the borders of illuminated pages of prayer books, and the books of Hours, especially in scenes featuring the Madonna and Christ.

madonna strawberries

The Madonna of the Strawberries

Sometimes they are part of the background, as in the charming German painting that honors the lowly fruit in its name, The Madonna of the Strawberries, at right. The strawberry symbolizes Our Lady as the "fruitful Virgin," which remains in flower and bears fruit at the same time. Because of its red color, the strawberry also alludes to the Passion of Christ, while the white flowers on the plant refer to the Madonna's purity and humility.

The Renaissance artists also depicted the strawberry in many paintings of Our Lady. In the Bagnacavallo Madonna by Albrecht Dürer, Our Lady has in her lap the Christ Child, who holds in one hand a sprig of a fruit-bearing strawberry plant. The plant has only two leaves in the three-leaf configuration, the missing leaf indicating the last person of the Trinity in the Child.

So also do we find a perfect strawberry plant with bloom and berries in the corner of Botticelli's Virgin Adoring the Sleeping Christ Child.

In the Garden of Paradise, below, another early 15th century painting, we again find Our Lady surrounded by flowers and fruits, all Marian symbols. Among those fruits is the lowly strawberry, food of the blessed souls in Heaven.

Thus, this sweet berry signifies not only the happiness of the garden of Eden, but also of the blessed souls in Heaven who are Our Lady's fruit and, thus, grow around her feet.

garden earthly delights

The Garden of Paradise, c. 15th century

There is only one exception to this rule of the strawberry as a Marian symbol in Garden of Paradise art, Darrow tells us, and that is its depiction in Bosch's strange, complicated triptych, where the painter depicts the strawberry along with the grape, cherry and apple, as a sign of voluptuousness. This is clearly not an expression of the innocent medieval artistic spirit. What we find there, rather, is the dark and occult symbolism that lived in Bosch's tortured imagination.

Thus, we conclude that the reputation of the sweet, aromatic strawberry is good. Its medieval symbolism is firmly set in reflecting the fruitful virginity of Our Lady and the righteous perfection of those blessed who enjoy her company in heavenly bliss.

donkey strawberry
Posted July 21, 2017
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