The Garden Gate: Poms prominent in art, culture

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By Ellen Probert Williamson
Petrus Crecentius was one of the most prominent writers of the late Middle Ages. His late 13th-century book was translated from Latin to Italian 100 years later, with French and German translations following.

Crecentius described in great detail the ideal medieval garden with its trees, flowers, pathways, orchards, fountains and, among many plants, pomegranates.

Garden culture in Europe made a lot of progress during The Crusades. In the garden courts of the Middle East, knights had discovered much colorful beauty in new flowers and trees that had not been seen in Europe. Many of them brought back pomegranate seeds to add to their fruit trees.

Pomegranates are mentioned in 14 books of the Bible and are described in many other ancient writings. They’re native to Asia,  from northern India to the Levant, where they have been cultivated since prehistoric times.

They’re common in Israel, Egypt and along shores of the Mediterranean and wild in Syria, Lebanon and in parts of Africa. The Bible refers to them as “the pleasant fruits of Egypt.”

The pulp of pomegranates has been used extensively since the days of Solomon for making sherbets and cooling drinks. It is also eaten raw, although it has a tart flavor.

For many centuries, the astringent rinds of unripened pomegranates have been used for red dyes and the tanning of the famous red Morocco leather. A red dye is made also of the flowers.

The method of tanning leather with pomegranate rinds which made Cordova famous for fine red leather products is still a product of that area.

Pomegranates are used in many medicines, perfumes and spiced wines. A number of Moslem sherbets owe their distinctive flavor to this juice.

Grenadine syrup, used in many desserts and drinks, is made from pomegranates.

The pomegranate came to be regarded as a sacred plant in early times. It was a symbol of fertility because of its large number of soft, edible seeds.

Its distinctive form can easily be recognized in Egyptian paintings and sculptures. It adorned the head of the royal scepter in ancient Persia.

In Rhodes, the blos-soms formed part of the royal coat of arms. An
ancient representation of Jupiter shows him holding a pomegranate in his hand.

It is no surprise that the Temple of Solomon was decorated with pomegranates at the tops of the trelliswork above the pilasters.

The priestly robes were embroidered with blue, purple and scarlet pomegranates.

An old Jewish temple in Capernaum in which Jesus is said to have
once preached has pomegranates pictured on its walls.

The beauty of the delicately crimson fruits caused them to be used in song and poetry in comparison to the beauty of young, blushing cheeks, as sometimes poets today compare a blushing cheek to a ripe peach.

Ancient legends say the pomegranate was the tree of life in the Garden of Eden.

It was from this belief that it became the symbol of hope of eternal life in early Christian art.

A bride in Turkey throws a ripe pomegranate to the ground, and the number of seeds which spill indicate the number of children she will have.

In Greek mythology, Ceres, goddess of the earth, became enraged when Zeus gave her daughter, Proserpine, to Pluto, god of the underworld, as his wife.

Ceres, in her anger, left heaven and came down to Earth, blessing all who were kind to her, and cursing those who were not.

Zeus was sorry to have caused all this disturbance. He demanded Pluto give Proserpine back.

Pluto did, but made Proserpine eat a pomegranate first. This gave him continued power over her, and he demanded that she spend half of every year with him.

So for six months of the year Proserpine is with Ceres, and the Earth is fruitful and green.

For the other six months, the Earth is cold and barren.

To the Greeks and Romans, the pomegranate became the symbol of the nether world.

It typified all seeds that must be planted in the earth to germinate, then emerge into the light for a season, only to have their seeds return to the darkness beneath the surface of the earth.

The original pomegranate, according to Greek mythology, was a lovely nymph who had been told by a soothsayer that she would one day wear a crown.

She was transformed into a pomegranate tree by Bacchus, the god of vineyards and wine, and a crown was placed at the top of her fruit.

The fruit is about the size of an orange, has a hard, red rind, and is surmounted by the crown-like calyx.

The flowers of the pomegranate undoubtedly served as patterns for embroideries on priestly temple robes for both Jewish and Hindu sects.

The erect calyx lobes were the inspiration for the design of Solomon’s crown and all royal crowns from that time on.

Pomegranate trees are usually small and bush-like. They occasionally can become large.

The opposite, or alternate, branches are often thorny, and the showy fruits can be red, yellow or white.

In China, the pomegranate symbolizes fertility. Women offer pomegranates to the goddess of mercy, Kwanyin, in the hope of having children. Many Chinese temple porcelains are decorated with pictures of pomegranates.

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Ellen Probert Williamson lives in Kingston. Her column appears regularly in the Roane County News.