The Strawberry: A Symbol of Perfection
The strawberry decorates an illuminated manuscript
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' strange occult depictions of the strawberry
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.
Strawberries adorn scenes of the Pentecost and St. Michael vanquishing the devil
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.
The Madonna of the Strawberries
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.
The Garden of Paradise, c. 15th century
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.