An unusual sacred symbol

Three works of art, with a common element. Can you spot it?

Archaeological Museum, Palermo, Sicily

Uffizi Gallery

Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna


Prado, Madrid

 A Roman sculpture of Persephone: the Madonna della Melagrana, by Botticelli: The Portrait of Emperor Maximilian by Albrecht Durer: a Madonna and Child by Fra Angelico.  The common theme? All are holding a pomegranate. Below is a close-up detail of the Fra Angelico.

The pomegranate is an attribute of Persephone, goddess of seasonal fertility. The legend tells us that she was abducted by Hades and taken to the underworld. Eventually, Hades agreed to release her, but he made her eat pomegranate seeds – the food of the underworld. This meant that she had to return regularly to the underworld, and seasons were born. In Greek mythology the pomegranate became an important fertility symbol. Looking at the fruit, it is easy to see why; the abundance of seeds. 

Christianity took it on as a symbol of abundant life, the generosity of God, and the resurrection of Christ. It symbolises the crucifixion: Open one up, and the red blood drips out, but that death brings life and salvation to all of us. The pomegranate held by the Virgin in Madonna and child images symbolises what is to come. It can also represent the church, itself, the seeds seen as the community of believers, with the Virgin Mary as mother of the church.
  Pomegranates are an important symbol for other faiths: it is mentioned three times in the Koran, where it is known as the ‘apple of paradise’. In Judaism it is a symbol of righteousness. It is said that each fruit contains 613 seeds, corresponding to the 613 commandments of the Torah. Traditionally, Jews eat them one seed at a time: each seed will fulfil a wish. Buddhism has high regard for the pomegranate as well.
  But what about the Durer portrait? Maximilian I was the Holy Roman Emperor, a powerful ruler. For him the pomegranate has an alternative meaning. Unopened, the pomegranate has the appearance of an orb – a symbol of power. The word ‘grenade’, is derived from pomegranate – powerful, yes, but hardly a symbol of fertility.

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