Nellius’ golden question

“…And there grow tall trees blossoming, pear-trees and pomegranates, and apple-trees with bright fruits, and sweet figs, and olives in their bloom. (...) Pear upon pear waxes old, and apple on apple, yea, and cluster ripens upon cluster of the grape, and fig upon fig. (...) These were the splendid gifts of the gods in the palace of Alcinöus.”

This is the first mention of the pear in literature, found in Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey from around 800 BCE. This gift of the gods was already very popular in the age of classical antiquity. From texts by ancient authors we know that different kinds of pear were cultivated and that the Romans didn’t like their pears raw. In the only known cookbook from the classical era, De Re Coquinaria by Apicius, there is a recipe for a spiced, stewed-pear soufflé. And Pliny the Elder recommends stewing them with honey in his encyclopedic work Naturalis Historia. This might even come close to the preparation of the mango chutney from the Rijks Conserven. Although it’s a Western-style chutney and inspired by the way Anglo-Indians in the Golden Age recreated Indian chutneys by using English orchard fruits and sugar.

Apples and pears

The pear had a literary introduction as a gift from the gods, but it wasn’t always a splendid gift. In Greek mythology, Prometheus used a golden pear as a means of distraction; he threw a golden pear into a courtyard of the gods and attached a message: “For the most beautiful goddess of all.” Three goddesses claimed the apple, Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite, and while a discussion arose between the gods, Prometheus stole the fire from Zeus.

This is a clear variation on the Golden Apple of Trojan War Fable, where a golden apple sets off a contest between the three goddesses. And this isn’t the only time the two fruits are interchanged; some might remember a story about a certain Adam and Eve, who lived in the Garden of Eden. They weren’t allowed to eat the fruit of the so-called tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. And of course somebody had a craving and took fruit from the tree - the original sin - and they were kicked out.

That’s the question

Many people think the forbidden fruit of that tree of Knowledge was an apple, because that’s what we’ve seen for centuries in European artworks. But the biblical description of the tree is very poorly done; it doesn’t name a specific fruit and according to some, the apple was unknown in the Near East when the Bible was written there. Therefore, in some traditions the forbidden fruit is a fig, a pomegranate or a pear.

Now, when you look at this still life by Martin Nellius (1621 - 1680), you can’t help but question: what is that mysterious golden fruit? Is it a pear, quince or an apple? And what does it symbolize? Keep in mind: Nellius is from the Dutch Golden Age, when the Dutch were at the forefront of almost everything, including the sciences. There was an unusually high number of educated people, a high level of literacy and a lack of censorship. And these Calvinistic people loved to re-read the Bible, because the scripture alone - sola scriptura - was the Word of God and therefore the final authority in belief and practice. Also, original sin was something we could not overcome, according to the Calvinistic view. And a still lifes often contain a moral lesson for the attentive viewer.

So, with all this in mind: Did Nellius paint this still life as a picture of distrust of holy images? And did he want to make us question what we see and believe? Or is it ‘just’ a picture of fruit?

All of the Rijks Conserven, including the mango chutney, are available at the webshop of the Rijksmuseum.

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Voor Spoon of Art schrijf ik blogs over kunst en eten. Deze blog verscheen dan ook eerder op www.spoonofart.nl.

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