Sori, 3 March 2017

We are down at the sea again, and yesterday, in what is becoming a good habit, we went for a walk in the surrounding hills. Our starting point was San Rocco, subject of a previous post, but this time, rather than heading down towards Punta Chiappa, we turned left and headed up towards the summit of Monte di Portofino. As I’ve noted in a previous post, trails up hills in Italy often become Vie Crucis, Ways of the Cross, with the fourteen Stations of the Cross set up along the trail. In the not-so old days – in my youth it was still common – local parish priests would periodically lead pious parishioners up such trails to “do the Stations of the Cross”. Given the subject matter, the death of Jesus on the Cross, Lent was a popular time. The group would move from station to station, stopping to pray at each one.
With the precipitous decline in Christian worship in Europe, I doubt many people do this any more.

In any event, the Via Crucis which we were following as we slowly rose past houses and started passing through olive groves
was not a standard Stations of the Cross, because it was enfolded in the story of Mary and was compressed to but a few of the normal fourteen stations. It started with the angel Gabriel visiting Mary and announcing to her that she would bear Jesus.
It moved on to Mary’s visit to Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, this visit being the source of that wonderful prayer, the Magnificat.
It ended the cycle of Jesus’s birth with the picture – much beloved in Italy – of the baby Jesus in the manger.
Jesus’s youth was then summarized in one station, showing him as young boy in the Temple, discussing sapiently with the wise old men there.
Jesus’s years of mission were skipped over and we were fast-forwarded to his agony in the garden of Gesthemane.


Then it lingered over two scenes of Jesus’s condemnation to death by crucifixion, his flogging


and his crowning with the crown of thorns.
It finally started into the stations of the cross proper, but squeezed the standard fourteen down to two. It showed Jesus carrying the cross
and him dying on that cross.
It moved on to the transcendent moment for Christians, Jesus rising from the dead
and went on to his ascension into heaven.
The stations finally returned to Mary, with her ascension into heaven at her death

to finish with her being crowned by her son in heaven.
By this time, the trail had reached the outer edges of the olive grows. After a pause to catch our breath and admire the view, we went on and up, into the woods proper.
I like this rural religious art. I like its simplicity, its roughness, its genuineness. This art will never be sold at Sotheby’s or Christie’s. But I also like it because it means something to me beyond the art. Brought up as I was in a Catholic family, all the stations along that walk represented scenes that are deeply familiar to me. All those hours – and hours – of gospel readings fifty years ago meant that when I saw those scenes of Jesus or Mary I went “Ah yes, that story!” And of course I have the same reaction in most Italian museums, stuffed as they are with religious paintings made by talented artists for Italy’s Renaissance city slickers. Thus it was at the Uffizi, which my wife and I visited very recently.

Fresh from that visit, I have decided to re-propose to the readers the thirteen stations of the Via Crucis that my wife and I had just walked along, this time using paintings from the Italian Renaissance and especially paintings by Botticelli – when I saw the first station, the Annunciation, his wonderful painting on this theme in the Uffizi immediately came to my mind. I have pretty well managed in my intention, straying only once into late Gothic and once into early Baroque. Here they are. Enjoy!

The Annunciation, Sandro Botticelli
The Visitation, Domenico Ghirlandaio
The Nativity, Sandro Botticelli
Christ among the Doctors, Duccio di Buoninsegna
The Agony in the Garden, Sandro Botticelli
The Flagellation of Christ, Sandro Botticelli
Crowning with Thorns, Caravaggio
Christ Carrying the Cross, Sandro Botticelli
The Crucifixion, Andrea Mantegna
The Resurrection, Sandro Botticelli
The Ascension, Pietro Perugino
The Assumption of the Virgin, Andrea del Sarto
Incoronation of the Virgin, Fra’ Angelico


Stations of the Cross in Domodossala: https://allevents.in/domodossola/via-crucis-per-le-domeniche-di-quaresima/179152335896297
Pictures along the trail: ours
Botticelli, Annunciation, Uffizi, Florence: http://historylink101.com/art/Sandro_Botticelli/pages/26_Annunciation_jpg.htm
Ghirlandaio, Visitation, Louvre: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Visitation_(Ghirlandaio)
Botticelli, Nativity, Columbia Museum of Art: https://www.google.com/amp/s/eclecticlight.co/2015/12/24/botticellis-unique-nativity/amp/
Duccio, Christ among the Doctors, Museum del Opera del Duomo, Siena: http://www.arts.magic-nation.co.uk/doctors1.htm
Botticelli, Agony in the Garden, Capilla Real de Granada: https://www.wikiart.org/en/sandro-botticelli/the-agony-in-the-garden
Botticelli, the Flagellation of Christ, Uffizi, Florence: https://www.wikiart.org/en/sandro-botticelli/the-flagellation
Caravaggio, Crowning with Thorns, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna: http://www.jesus-story.net/painting_passion_christ.htm
Botticelli, Christ carrying the Cross, Beaverbrook Art Gallery, Fredericton: https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sandro_Botticelli_-_Christ_Carrying_the_Cross._1490-1.jpg
Mantegna, Crucifixion, Louvre: http://www.oilpaintingfactory.com/english/oil-painting-105710.htm
Botticelli, the Resurrection, Beaverbrook Art Gallery, Fredericton: http://christianityinview.com/jesuschrist.html
Perugino, Ascension, Musée des Beaux Arts, Lyon: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ascension_of_Jesus_in_Christian_art#/media/File%3APietro_Perugino_cat48c.jpg
Andrea del Sarto, Assumption of the Virgin, Palazzo Pitti, Florence: https://www.wikiart.org/en/andrea-del-sarto/assumption-of-the-virgin-1
Fra Angelico, Coronation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Uffizi, Florence: http://www.marysrosaries.com/collaboration/index.php?title=File:Coronation_Of-the_Blessed_Virgin_Mary_-_Fra_Angelico_081.jpg


Beijing, 26 August 2014

Suddenly, there are vendors on every street corner of Beijing hawking pomegranate juice.

pomegranate pressers 004

As certainly as the appearance of vendors selling pineapples on Beijing’s streets is a signal that Spring is coming, so this new apparition is a sign that Summer is drawing to a close, with the pomegranate trees now heavy with fruit.

pomegranate orchard

My wife and I have bought our cup of pomegranate juice. Peering down into that dark red liquid


I have as usual begun to ask myself questions about this fruit. It’s not from my basket of inherited foods. I never remember eating it as a child. Which is not surprising, really. It doesn’t grow well in the UK or France – certainly, my French grandmother had no pomegranate trees in her garden; peaches, plums, apples and pears, but no pomegranates. I have never eaten them in Italy either, even though they were brought to Italy during Roman times; their cultivation is limited to the far south.

That’s the thing, pomegranates are not a European fruit. I thought for a moment – given my previous discoveries – that they originated in China. But actually their historical tap root is sunk in Persia (today’s Iran), and the Himalayan foothills of the Indian subcontinent.

It’s been cultivated as a fruit for an awfully long time; they say it’s probably one of the very first fruits which we humans cultivated. And it caught on, being carried enthusiastically along the ancient trade routes. It was already being eaten in Jericho in 3,000 BC or thereabouts and in Cyprus some while later (in both cases, archaeologists found remains of the fruit in the cities’ ancient garbage dumps).

From the Middle East, it was but a hop, skip and a jump to bring the pomegranate to Greece in one direction and to Egypt in the other. This piece of fresco from a tomb painting in Egypt shows the delights of a private garden, with a pomegranate tree tucked away in one corner, no doubt a prelude of the delights which awaited Nebamun, the owner of this particular tomb, in the after-life.

Egyptian wall painting 'Pond_in_a_Garden'

Meanwhile, from their base in Lebanon, the Phoenicians carried the fruit to their overseas territories, notably Carthage. And it was from Carthage that the pomegranate arrived in Rome. Everything comes full circle in this picture, where a mosaic in the Roman style, laid down in the city of Caesarea in Rome’s near eastern province of Judaea (in what is now Israel)

Roman Bird-Mosaic-in-Caesarea

depicts among other delights a pomegranate tree.

Roman Bird-Mosaic-detail

For their part, having welcomed the pomegranate into the homeland – the delights of the pomegranate are mentioned no less than three times in the Quran – the Arabs carried the pomegranate with them in their conquests of North Africa. Later on, the Muslimised Berbers of North Africa brought it to Spain. And it is in their palace of Alhambra in the city of Grenada, the last Muslim stronghold in Spain, that we find, weaved into the intricate designs on the walls, this pomegranate


To be found in the palace’s Golden chamber.

alhambra-cuarto dorado

Perhaps it comes as no surprise to know that Spain is now Europe’s biggest producer of pomegranates.

Meanwhile, the pomegranate also travelled east from Persia, along the fabled Silk Road, through Central Asia and finally entered China through Xinjian. But after becoming one of the three blessed fruits of Buddhism, it also tumbled off the Himalayas and travelled into the heart of India, and probably from there it sailed, via the Maritime Silk Route, to south China and Southeast Asia. And from China it was but another hop, skip, and a jump for the pomegranate to be carried to Japan and Korea, where in truth it was appreciated more as a good candidate for bonsai-ism than for its fruit.

bonsai pomegranate

In passing, we should acknowledge that the pomegranate tree does have beautiful flowers


another reason that the ancients loved the tree, as evidenced by this other wall painting from Egypt

Egyptian wall painting pomegranate in flower

To be honest, I’m not sure I understand what all the enthusiasm is about. I mean, the juice is OK, but what I really like about a fruit is to sink my teeth into it. And all those seeds in the pomegranate


make that an unpleasant experience – bits of seeds getting stuck in my teeth, a sort of gritty munching experience, that sort of thing … I know the seeds are edible, but psychologically I’m not ready to crunch my way through a whole bunch of seeds. I’ll pick up a peach instead, thank you.

In my opinion, though, it’s precisely those seeds that made it so popular in the old days and encouraged its dissemination out of its Persian-Himalayan homeland. Not, I should clarify, because people liked to crunch their way through a pile of seeds 5,000 years ago (although maybe they did), but because those seeds were a potent symbol of fertility to those eaters. Remember one of the cardinal principles of sympathetic magic, which was potent then: if I eat something (or spread it on my skin, or wear it), I will absorb its powers. Clearly, all those seeds meant that the pomegranate was suffused with fertility. So it would be good to eat it, for instance, if I wanted to have lots of children. This old, old idea has been continued as a quaint custom played out in Greek and Armenian weddings

greek wedding

where at some point the bride breaks open a pomegranate and the seeds spill out (I’m sure I do not need to explain the symbolism of this). But this wish for fertility can be more generalized, and in this guise the pomegranate tree has been cast in the role of Tree of Life. Here, for instance, on this ancient Assyrian seal we see priests standing before a pomegranate as the tree of life, with the sun – another symbol of life – gently beaming down

Assyrian priests with pomegranate tree

And here we see the same symbolism woven into this carpet, made several thousand years later and several thousand kilometres away in the southern corner of the Chinese province of Xinjian.

Khotan carpet

Good ideas have staying power.

The fertility attributed to the pomegranate led to even more abstruse symbolism. Already in Egypt the pomegranate’s fertility transmuted it into a symbol of life after death: eternal fertility – which is why they liked having it represented in their tombs. Somehow, somewhere along the line, the pomegranate took on a similar symbolism for Christians, becoming a representation of Christ’s resurrection and promise of life after death. So here we have a pomegranate along with Christ in a Roman mosaic (again) from the 4th Century AD, from, of all places, a small village in Dorset.

Christian mosaic hinton st mary-detail

Christian mosaic hinton st mary

And here we have an incomparably more beautiful version from 1487 by Sandro Botticelli



Botticelli is telling us that both the Madonna and her child know of the suffering to come, but the pomegranate tells us that it will not have been in vain.

All of this doesn’t change the fact that pomegranates have too many seeds in them to make them a nice eat.


Pomegranate presser: my picture
Pomegranate orchard: http://www.agritay.com/pomegranate2.JPG [in http://www.agritay.com/ie3.htm%5D
Pomegranate juice: http://www.simplecomfortfood.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/fresh-pommegranite-juice.jpg [in http://www.simplecomfortfood.com/2011/12/04/fresh-pomegranate-juice/%5D
Egyptian wall painting “Pond in a garden”: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/51/”Pond_in_a_Garden”_(fresco_from_the_Tomb_of_Nebamun).jpg [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gardens_of_ancient_Egypt%5D (fresco from the Tomb of Nebamun, Thebes, 18th Dynasty).jpg
Roman bird mosaic: http://www.mapah.co.il/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/Bird-Mosaic-in-Caesarea-DSC-3039.jpg
Roman bird mosaic-pomegranate: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_V0EJcthPaew/TPtykNgTYNI/AAAAAAAAHtM/FDksj7TzZA0/s1600/DSC00340.JPG [in http://pazzapazza2.blogspot.com/2010/12/bird-mosaic.html%5D
Alhambra-detail: https://c2.staticflickr.com/6/5178/5533757498_c68f320ab9_z.jpg [in https://www.flickr.com/photos/psulibscollections/5533757498/%5D (Alhambra: Cuarto Dorado, detail of stucco decoration, Date: 14th century, Alhambra: Cuarto Dorado (Golden Chamber), detail of carved stucco decoration with pomegranate motifs, 14th century, Nasrid period.)
Alhambra-cuarto dorado: http://myspanishadventures.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/IMG_4741.jpg [in http://myspanishadventures.com/the-alhambra/%5D
Bonsai pomegranate: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_nruXh-jwU5o/S_nWTS_IdSI/AAAAAAAAWB8/L1sJwhwiWVA/s1600/pomegranate5222010.jpg [in http://bonsaibeginnings.blogspot.com/2011_07_01_archive.html%5D
Pomegranate flower: http://ladyofthecakes.files.wordpress.com/2013/06/p1010002.jpg [in http://ladyofthecakes.wordpress.com/2013/06/22/pomegranates-in-the-making/%5D
Egyptian wall painting pomegranate tree in flower: http://www.vashsad.ua/downloads/image/7396/main3.jpg [in http://www.vashsad.ua/landscape-design/styles/articles/show/7396/%5D
Pomegranate seeds: http://m.cdn.blog.hu/ga/gasztrobakancslista/image/pomegranate-photos-5111.jpg [in http://gasztrobakancslista.blog.hu/2014/02/27/20_granatalma%5D
Greek wedding: http://simerini.com.cy/files/imagecache/full_image/files/node_images/6/5/5/329655/1_______________________________________.JPG [in http://www.simerini.com.cy/simerini/politismos/agenda/329655%5D
Assyrian priests with pomegranate tree: http://tabloidenoticias.files.wordpress.com/2014/02/sumerio.jpg [in http://tabloidenoticias.wordpress.com/%5D
Khotan carpet: http://www.metropolitancarpet.com/assets/images/Khotan7.jpg [in http://www.metropolitancarpet.com/html/body_pomegranate__antique_oriental_rugs.html%5D
Christian mosaic Hinton St Mary: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/60/Mosaic2_-_plw.jpg [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hinton_St_Mary_Mosaic%5D
Christian mosaic Hinton St Mary-detail: http://www.vanderbilt.edu/AnS/Classics/roman_provinces/britain/hintonst.marymosiac.JPG [in http://www.vanderbilt.edu/AnS/Classics/roman_provinces/britain/image16.htm%5D
Botticelli: http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-b-2sXs3aQeo/T-Yv5SWbaEI/AAAAAAAAAc4/tLnT8Advf0c/s1600/Botticelli.jpg [in http://aggiehorticulturegoestoitaly.blogspot.com/2012_06_01_archive.html%5D
Botticelli-detail: http://www.backtoclassics.com/images/pics/sandrobotticelli/sandrobotticelli_madonnaofthepomegranatedetail.jpg [in http://www.backtoclassics.com/gallery/sandrobotticelli/madonnaofthepomegranatedetail/%5D