I love pickled cucumbers. My fav restaurants are aware of this character flaw and bribe me with an extra portion of pickles whenever I order a burger. Pickled cucumbers guarantee my loyalty, shut my eyes to poor service, and double sales of mineral water.
I know a Renaissance artist who had a similar infatuation with this vegetable, and, given the colour palette he used for cucumbers, I am sure he was into pickles too.
It was Carlo Crivelli, a Venetian-born artist of the 15th century.
He was a descendant of the Renaissance line fathered by Pisanello and Gentile da Fabriano, who, unlike Masaccio, didn’t care about humanistic ideas, focusing instead on the truthful depiction of nature. They loved those bits of nature that make today’s hipster Instagramers so hip with their snapshots of autumn leaves, back-alley graffiti, and other hipsters.
It wouldn’t come as a surprise now that pre-Raphaelites, the hipsters of the 19th century, embraced Crivelli as a brother.
Carlo’s love for cucumbers is unique in art history. He understood that the beauty of cucumbers was not in the eye of the beholder but in the contrast of its rough pimpled skin and irregular shape vs the smooth and round forms of meaty leaves, apples, and marble floors.
The giant fly in the left corner, which scares infant Jesus into bracing himself while protecting his bird (the symbol of his future passions), commands your undivided attention now, for indeed it is the devil.
Resist. Leave the fly where it is. It is not going to buzz away, and we are here to talk about cucumbers, OK?
The Met that owns the Madonna and Child says the cucumber is a symbol of redemption. Sorry, guys, but redemption is reserved after gourd, which looks like a pear-shaped pumpkin unless it is moulded into Chairman Mao or Buddha by its Chinese grower (it is all the rage in China right now, I am told):
German art historians believe Crivelli used the cucumber as a symbol of the male side of sin, with its female side contained in the apple.
Really? Hanging a cucumber as a Freudian symbol off the garland right in front of Madonna’s face and not being burnt at the stake would be, I assume, an impossible achievement in Italy 550 years ago.
The problem is that no one seems to know what symbolic meaning Crivelli attached to cucumbers (or, as I am sure, pickled cucumbers).
Most of Renaissance symbolism is well-researched and widely known. Cherries stand for droplets of Jesus blood. Pomegranate is the Church and its flock. Buttercup means Christ and his future passions. Massive fruit & veggie garlands hint at agricultural achievements of Paradise gardeners who can do wonders without chemical fertilisers and pesticides.
What about cucumbers?
Look at this Annunciation by my cucumber friend Carlo:
As we scan this painting, we are awed by the details of architecture, amazing colours, and perspective that’s perfect for exactly 50% of perspective (its depth is OK, but horizontally it ceases to exist). While we are here, note the woman in the blue dress, a colourful enhancer of the vanishing point. There’s certain humour, from today’s point of view, of course, in this scene. The Archangel, performing his most sacred duty in all of the New Testament, is distracted by a developer who wishes to get a blessing for his construction project. Listen, buddy, you are here giving blessings and all that anyway, so would you mind stamping this little project?
And, as we get to the bottom, we can’t but frown at the cucumber there.
Somehow, the apple is OK. Adam, Eve, the original sin, it all fits the narrative. But a cucumber?
Let me blow it up for you so that its wonderful detail can be appreciated in all its exquisite glory.
What is its meaning?
One bit I am sure of is that experts who believe it is a dick metaphor are dickheads. The myth of Crivelli’s cucumbers being related to the male end of the original sin appeared because of Crivelli himself. In Venice, he fell in love with a beautiful woman. Take a young Italian artist, add a beautiful woman, sprinkle it with Venetian atmosphere (remove the stench of canals first) and you get love potion you can sell to anyone any time. Carlo fell in love so hard that his Madonnas would have the face of his beloved thereon. This story could have an ending similar to that of Filippo Lippi’s love affair with a nun if only Carlo’s sweetheart was not already married. That adultery cost Carlo six months in prison, banishment from Venice, and the myth about cucumbers for the next five centuries.
When this painting was exhibited in the Hermitage in St.Petersburg, their curator explained it as a symbol of paradise abundance. Why is then a single apple placed next to it? I doubt paradise menu is limited to these two food items. Instead, I see the Hermitage curator going like, “oh, my god, oh my god, this is a dick metaphor! Those religious fanatics won’t let the gallery show it! What shall I do? What shall I do? I need to invent something entirely different!”
A curator from the National Gallery in London, which is the Annunciation’s home base, asks a food expert about the cucumber meaning. The food expert offhandedly says the cucumber is the symbol of Christ, and apple stands for the Virgin. Yes, my jaw dropped too.
As I and Carlo are both cucumber enthusiasts, I am sure I can propose my own, undoubtedly correct, explanation for his cucumbers.
Five hundred years ago, the cucumber was associated with the image of the Virgin Mary. It implied that the Mother of Christ was never touched by sin. The idea originated from a passage from the prophet Isaiah: “And the daughter of Zion is like a booth in the vineyard, like a lodge in a cucumber field, like a besieged city”.
A cucumber, populated by numerous seeds residing inside its thick “walls”, may indeed be seen as a metaphor for a besieged city. It’s a bit stretched but who wouldn’t struggle to come up with a symbol for a woman who had a child and stayed a virgin resisting all the temptations that might have been around?
That’s the reason a cucumber appears in the Madonna and Child painting, although the way it sits next to apples creates a very bizarre still life.
I don’t think apples here stand for the original sin either. There are three of them there and even though Christ was brought into this world to atone for the original sin (and a lot of other sins tailgating it) putting an apple into triplicate to drive a point seems a bit excessive, especially next to the symbol of the Virgin. Note that the apples are still attached to the branches (disregard the inconvenient fact that the cucumber grows on an apple tree: even Gregor Mendel would struggle to explain it).
It’s more likely and logical that the apples stand for wisdom, which people should respect but leave to Nobel Prize winners to pick. There’s wisdom in it too: I knew guys who hoped they could do six years of pure math and not become decidedly potty in the process. Ha! This kind of wisdom takes no prisoners.
The Annunciation cucumber is more complicated.
It slips out of the frame into our world. It is possible that Carlo did it to flaunt his painterly skills, of course, but I don’t think it was his sole intention. He was very careful about symbolism and wouldn’t waste a whole cucumber to boost his vanity.
The Virgin sits behind an iron-barred window. This makes a cucumber, as a besieged city metaphor, quite appropriate here but…placing it on the floor ruins the hypothesis. No one dared to throw symbols of divine entities on the floor. Never.
You only throw sins beneath your feet. And sins indeed are the alternative, and more fitting, interpretation of the cucumber and the apple.
Let’s begin with the cucumber.
When the Israelites were in the desert, they preferred to eat cucumbers rather than manna sent from Heaven. It’s not a figment of my imagination, it’s the Bible:
The Israelites complained (Numbers 11:4-6): “Who will feed us meat? We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt free of charge, the cucumbers, the watermelons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. But now, our bodies are dried out, for there is nothing at all; we have nothing but manna to look at.”
Thus, cucumber became associated with perdition, or final and irrevocable spiritual ruin, resulting from rejection of God and His gifts. Was this tiny bit of the Scripture well-known or relevant to Crivelli? And why didn’t he use watermelons, onions, or garlic (it could guard the painting against vampires as well)? My hypothesis is simple. Carlo was a vegetarian. Out of the list of vegetables in the paragraph above only cucumbers represent something that can make you sated. Cucumbers were the only “real food” on that menu. Crivelli awareness of the story might have been additionally supported by the fact that Christian vegetarians have often used manna to justify their claim that God never intended man to eat meat. This made the story top-of-mind for Carlo.
In this context, the apple next to the cucumber stands for the original sin (we can’t do much about it because of Eve), and the cucumber, as a symbol of perdition, becomes logically protruding into our world (avoiding irrevocable spiritual ruin is indeed in our own hands).
Crivelli didn’t just decorate his painting with symbolic stuff, he sent out a coded message, a motivational prep talk. With what we know now of the meaning of the cucumber and apple, it can be reduced to “Do not reject God who once came into this world to atone for your sins.”