Sacred Symbols: Apples & Pears

As I walked toward downtown Iowa City last week, I passed dozens of ornamental apple and pear trees in full bloom. Their flowers reminded me that I’m due to produce a post about the connection between apples, pears, and Mary, Jesus’ mother. I first noticed a potential link between them when I visited the Washington National Cathedral about five years ago. As I stood admiring the stained glass windows in the Cathedral’s north transept, I spotted clusters of sculpted apples and pears near the archways that lead to the outside porch (photos 1 and 2). I recalled that the Cathedral’s north porch is dedicated to Mary and holy women, just as it is in Europe’s Gothic cathedrals.

1. Apple Cluster, Washington National Cathedral, Washington, DC

1. Apple Cluster, Washington National Cathedral, Washington, DC

2. Pear Cluster, Washington National Cathedral, Washington, DC

2. Pear Cluster, Washington National Cathedral, Washington, DC

I suspected that the apples and pears have something to do with Mary, but what?  I’d never read about the pear being one of her emblems. As far as I knew, the only written references to Mary and fruit are two legends recorded in the apocryphal Infancy Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew. In one tale, as Mary and Joseph are on their way to Bethlehem to be counted in the census, the unborn Jesus commands a cherry tree to yield its fruit to his mother. In the other, baby Jesus orders a palm tree to bend down to “refresh my mother with your fruit” as the Holy Family is en route to Egypt to escape Herod’s “Massacre of the Innocents.”  As I left the National Cathedral, I carried two new questions with me. Are apples and pears attributes of Mary and, what do they mean if they are?

Apples and Pears in Christian Iconography  I didn’t have to go very far to establish that a connection exists between Mary and the fruit. The National Gallery of Art, only three miles from the Cathedral, displays two early Renaissance paintings by the Venetian painter Carlo Crivelli in which apples and pears appear with Mary. In the earlier painting, apples and pears dangle alongside Mary’s head as Jesus holds what looks like a large golden delicious in his hands (photo 3). In the later painting, the infant Jesus admires a ripening pear that Mary holds in her left hand (photo 4). Crivelli worked in the late 1400’s. About twenty years later and 150 miles to the west in Parma, Corregio painted what appears to be a trellis with apples as the backdrop for his famous Virgin and Child with the Young St. John the Baptist, now at Chicago’s Art Institute (photo 5).

Madonna & Child, Crivelli (1490), National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

3. Crivelli, Madonna & Child Enthroned with Donor Detail (1470), National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

Virgin & Child, Crivelli (1490), National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

4. Crivelli, Madonna & Child Detail (1490), National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

Corregio, Virgin and Child with the Young St. John the Baptist (1515), Art Institute of Chicago

5. Corregio, Virgin and Child with the Young St. John the Baptist (1515), Art Institute of Chicago

An Italian connection for the National Cathedral’s apple and pear clusters makes sense. Roger Morigi, the National Cathedral’s chief stone carver for decades, was a native of Milan who moved to the Washington, DC area in 1932 and lived there until his death in 1995. Perhaps Mr. Morigi went to the National Gallery from time to time to seek inspiration in the works of the Italian masters for some of his own creations; or maybe he already knew when he left Italy that apples and pears belong to Mary’s traditional iconography. But when and where did that tradition start?

I’ll go out on a limb. I think its origins are in Western Europe and that it dates to the mid-13th century if not earlier. A small bit of evidence for this proposition appears in the exquisite Notre Dame de la Belle Verriere (Our Lady of the Beautiful Glass), Chartres Cathedral’s most famous stained glass window (photo 6). The lancet comprises a 12th century representation of the Virgin and Christ Child in the central panels with eight angels in 13th century glass around them. We’ll focus on the angels in the “newer” glass.

6. Notre Dame de la Belle Verriere, Chatres Cathedral, France

6. Notre Dame de la Belle Verriere, Chartres Cathedral, France (click to enlarge)

The two topmost angels look down from the clouds. The pair on either side of Jesus hold candlesticks, probably to signify the Christian belief that Jesus is the light of the world. The other four angels swing censers at Mary’s feet and above her head as if to envelop the scene in fragrant smoke. On close inspection, you’ll see that the four censing angels also hold baskets or bowls filled with small, round objects. Could they be red apples and yellowish pears (photos 7 and 8)? It’s not clear. If they are apples and pears, it’s important for us to ask if they uniquely symbolize a belief about Mary’s character.

7. Angel with Red Fruit? Chartres Cathedral, France

7. Angel with Red Fruit? Chartres Cathedral, France

Angel with Basket, Chartres Cathedral, France

8. Angel with Yellow Fruit? Chartres Cathedral, France

Apples and Pears as Symbols   J.C. Cooper, in the introduction to his helpful Illustrated Encyclopedia of Traditional Symbols, writes that “the symbol differs from the emblem and allegory in that it expresses, or crystallizes, some aspect or direct experience of life and truth and thus leads beyond itself.”  The white lily, for example, symbolizes the Roman Catholic belief that Mary was born and remained sinless. The flower expresses her essential purity. What does the apple express? It’s a mixed bag with at least one bad apple in it. Because the same Latin word, malum, means both apple and evil, many people have come to think of it as the fruit that Adam and Eve ate in the Garden of Eden. According to legend, a piece of it stuck in Adam’s throat and became known as “Adam’s apple.” But the apple obviously has positive connotations as well. George Ferguson wrote in his Signs & Symbols in Christian Art that an apple held by Christ symbolizes the “fruit of salvation.” He observes that an apple held by Mary means pretty much the same thing.

Ferguson’s explanation might satisfy me if it were not for the combination of apples and pears at the National Cathedral and in Crivelli’s paintings. What do these two fruits have in common besides the fact that they both grow on trees?  A window in Chartres Cathedral’s north transept may point to the answer. Mary and her mother, Anna, appear enthroned in the center of five lancets directly below the stunning rose window called the “Rose of France” (photo 9).

9. Rose of France Window  and Lancets in Chartres Cathedral's North Transept, France

9. Rose of France Window and Lancets in Chartres Cathedral’s North Transept, France (click to enlarge)

The artist portrayed Mary as a young girl, seated on her mother’s lap, in a manner similar to the Belle Verriere composition. Notice that Anna holds a scepter in her right hand with three white flowers sprouting from it (photo 10). Each flower has five petals.

10. Anna and Mary, Chartres Cathedral, France

10. Anna and Mary, Chartres Cathedral, France

The number five is significant on many levels. For the ancient Hebrews it meant, among other things, “radical intelligence.” For Pythagorean Greeks, it symbolized the sacred marriage of gods with humans. For Aristotle and subsequent Greek and Roman philosophers, it represented “quintessence,” the substance of the heavenly spheres. Any of these could apply to Mary since she is variously known as the “Seat of Wisdom,” “Mother of God,” and “Queen of Heaven.” Which of them best explains the link between five, apples, pears, and Mary? I think Aristotle’s quintessence theory does.

Mary and Quintessence   Aristotle’s conception of the cosmos continued to influence thinkers during the medieval period when Chartres Cathedral and the other great Gothic cathedrals were being built, and into the Renaissance. Greek philosophers before him posited that the physical world consists of four essential elements: air, earth, water, and fire. To these, Aristotle added a fifth element to explain the apparent changelessness of the heavens. According to Sir Geoffrey E.R. Lloyd, Aristotle reasoned that the stars are immutable and therefore can’t be made of the same corruptible elements that comprise the material world. The stars must consist of a heavenly substance. Aristotle called it aether or “quintessence.”

It only takes of a short stretch of the imagination to connect an incorruptible heavenly substance with the glorious image of an incorruptible Queen of Heaven whose cult was at its height in the Middle Ages. Medieval alchemists probably helped forge the link. J.C. Cooper also points out that alchemists saw the five-petalled flower and five-pointed star as symbols of the quintessence.

This may explain the unique design of the rose window in the north transept at Amiens Cathedral, about 70 miles north of Paris (photo 11). The vast window encircles an inverted five-point star. The star’s presence in a Christian cathedral surprises and confuses many people. They see it as a sign of the devil. But the inverted star’s satanic connotations are fairly recent. They began in the 1850’s through the writing of Eliphas Levi, long after Amiens’ Cathedral of Notre Dame was completed in the 1200’s. The devil has nothing to do with the star in this rose window.

11. Star Rose Window, Amiens Cathedral, France

11. Star Rose Window, Amiens Cathedral, France

Amiens’ five-pointed star, through its placement in the north transept and its intricate design, is all about Mary. It almost certainly symbolizes the belief that her essence is of earth and heaven or, put another way, that she embodies the substance of the incorruptible heavens. The window’s structure is absolutely ingenious. The inverted star enabled the architect to place a pentagon—and more—in the window’s center. Look closely. Two five-petalled “flowers” are nestled in the pentagon, one within the other (photo 12). The two flowers’ petals add up to ten, the symbolic number of completion and perfection. Brilliant!

12. Star and Pentagon, Amiens Cathedral, France (photo by Vassil from Wikimedia Commons)

12. Star and Pentagon, Amiens Cathedral, France (photo by Vassil from Wikimedia Commons, click to enlarge)

Modern artists continue the tradition of using the five-point star in Mary’s iconography. A nice example of this is on view at St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church in Storm Lake, Iowa (photo 13). The window portrays the vision described in Chapter 12 of the Book of Revelation of a woman “clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet….”

13. Queen of Heaven Window, St. Mary's Church, Storm Lake, IA

13. Queen of the Universe Window, St. Mary’s Church, Storm Lake, IA

This finally brings us back to apples and pears. What do they have to do with Mary’s quintessential nature? As with the window at Amiens, a five-pointed star is embedded in them! Slice an apple or pear laterally to reveal the little star and ponder the meaning of the old adage that “it’s what’s inside that counts!” (photos 14 and 15)

13. Sliced Apple

14. Sliced Apple

13. Apple Blossom, Iowa City, IA

15. Apple Blossom, Iowa City, IA

Copyright 2015, Michael Klug,, April 29, 2015

11 thoughts on “Sacred Symbols: Apples & Pears

  1. “Going out on a limb” while writing about apples and pears Kluger? Hmm, me thinks the medieval artists as you pack meaning into your writing and ask us to look deeper into your writing and ourselves. Are you sure you didn’t mean apples and oranges?
    I love how your curiosity and body of knowledge marry each other in your blogs. Truly I do.
    A last thought: as much as I love human artists, that last photograph of the apple blossom captures what human artists can seemingly never capture: a simple and pure essence of beauty yet nature cannot express the complexity of the human thought and soul which artists strive to express.

  2. Proofread and proofread again, my voice activated software simply don’t write what I say! This is what I thought I said: “Hmm, me thinks the medieval artists apparently have rubbed off on you as you pack meaning into your writing and ask us to look deeper into your writing and ourselves.”

  3. Wags: I agree that the medieval artists (and some of the theologians who employed them) have rubbed off on me. I identify with their ability to perceive an unseen reality beyond the seen. But more to the point, your comment about our inability to fully capture the simple essence of natural beauty is right on target and reminded me immediately of Joyce Kilmer’s poem about trees.

    I THINK that I shall never see
    A poem lovely as a tree.

    A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
    Against the sweet earth’s flowing breast;

    A tree that looks at God all day, 5
    And lifts her leafy arms to pray;

    A tree that may in summer wear
    A nest of robins in her hair;

    Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
    Who intimately lives with rain. 10

    Poems are made by fools like me,
    But only God can make a tree.

  4. Rick Legault offered this clarification about the bowls that I thought might contain fruit. Thank you, Rick, for the information on the ritual of “thurification!”

    “Rather than fruit bowls, I think what the two censing angels are holding are more probably incense boats or charcoal holders. These are very much the traditional sacred vessels required for the proper enactment of the sanctifying ritual of thurification that the window depicts. On this score consult wikipedia. Or better still, Herrera’s article. Inspecting your photos numbers 7 and 8 carefully, in your ‘bowls’ you should be able to count precisely 7 lumps of incense or charcoal. The count of seven should open your eyes to the glow, and your nose, to the fragrance of the wisdom of the seven liberal arts.”

  5. Patricia Lea says:

    The imagery of the apples and pears comes from the Old Testament Canticles 7:13 “… In our gates are all fruits: the new and the old, my beloved, I have kept for thee.” The Latin word for fruit here is “poma” or apple, which, before Linnaeus, included both apples and pear pome fruits. Although the exegesis on this passage varies, generally, the passage in interpreted as referring to Christ’s Doctrine as revealed in the Old and New Testaments. Two pears joined together, one ripe and one green, were used to symbolize the Old and New Testements (see Francisco de Zurbaran’s “Christ and the Virgin in the House at Nazareth, c. 1640, Cleveland Museum of Art).

    • Patsy: Thank you for sharing the information about the Old Testament Canticles to my post about Apples and Pears. I’m not familiar with the Canticles. I very much appreciate that you took the time to bring my attention to them and to explain the double meaning for “pome fruits.” Thank you again!

  6. Patricia Lea says:

    Another name for the Canticles is the Song of Songs. I rarely comment on articles, but your discussion of apples and pears reminded me of many long hours spent researching the symbolism of these two fruits before I discovered they were both “poma” and therefore interchangeable, at least in this particular instance. Pears are perhaps easier for the artist to use because their shape and coloration makes alluding to old and new fruits easier.

    • I greatly appreciate that you made an exception, and left a comment! When I started to write this blog, I hoped that folks like you–who know a subject well–would offer feedback and new information. As much as anything, I hoped to learn more through the process of writing and posting. Your comments help fulfill that hope. Thank you for taking the time to share your well-researched insights!

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