by Mark Calderwood
One of the renaissance treasures scheduled soon to grace the Antipodes is Giovanni Bellini’s masterpiece Madonna of the pear. Except…it’s not a pear, but a quince.
But does that matter? It’s just a minor decorative element tossed in at the whim of the artist, and he named the painting after it, right? But while it may seem insignificant to us, to its original audience that fruit was a pivotal detail: it acted as a point of connection and symbol for contemplation, and indicated how the painting was to be ‘read’ and related to.
More accessible than gigantic church altarpieces, paintings of this type became enormously fashionable in the fifteenth century as private devotion became more popular. In the domestic setting, the half-length format and warmly human depiction of the madonna created a sense of intimacy and an active emotional engagement on the part of the devotee. But in an age where consumers of art were visually literate and adept at reading it nuances, even religious paintings required an intellectual engagement to match the emotional.
Most often, this was provided by the inclusion of everyday objects that would be read for their symbolic qualities, forming a parergon, a self-contained narrative in dialogue with the more obvious subject of the painting. And already familiar from centuries of medieval manuscript illumination, symbolic flowers and fruits were particularly popular in Italian art.
Seeing that solitary fruit perched on the parapet, we might assume it to be a reference to the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden, or else as an allusion to Christ as the ‘fruit of (the Virgin’s) womb.’ Perfectly reasonable- yet renaissance people did not think that way.
In renaissance thought, the essence of the divine was beyond the ability of philosophy, art, or the human mind or senses to grasp; yet images were an integral part of faith and devotion. The answer lay in a language of disguised symbolism, of hidden spiritual significance cloaked beneath the everyday. Medieval biblical scholars taught that in addition to their ‘actual’ meaning (sensus litteralis), quotidian items carried layers of religious meaning. These were an allegorical meaning related to faith, a tropological or figurative meaning that concerned questions of Christian morality, and an anagogical or mystical meaning, that pointed beyond the object itself to its deeper spiritual dimensions. While the literal meaning was quite unambiguous (ie, a quince is a quince), the spiritual meaning was contextual, and influenced how the symbol, the parergon and the entire work were understood. Renaissance artists took to this layered symbolism with a vengeance, and art was filled with often excessive symbolic speculation that went beyond even the frantic exegesis of the high Middle Ages.
Bellini’s Madonna is a restrained but striking example of this language at work- much of it stemming from the titular fruit. Although misnamed as a pear, it is painted with such delicate realism that botanists can accurately identify it as a quince, a pome fruit related to pears that figured prominently in renaissance painting. Moreover, in Italy the luscious pear was associated with sin, while the golden quince was symbolic of the Resurrection: thus providing the key to the painting. This is made explicit by the fruit’s off-centre placement below the infant Christ: in Christian doctrine, incarnation presumed resurrection, hence the quince’s popularity in images of the Madonna.
The quince’s position on the ledge is also significant: although the Virgin and child are depicted with touching humanity, the marble parapet bars the mortal viewer from sharing their fictive space. The fruit is an accessible earthly object, the thing that bridges the everyday and numinous realms and provides an point of entry leading into the painting, emotionally as well as visually. Even the fact that the quince sits alone on the ledge is meaningful, highlighting the resurrection as the single most important tenet of Christian belief, and the sole means by which mankind could come to God.
Even more subtle is the intertextual dialogue between the ‘separate layers’ of the image: the intricately detailed rural scene that rolls into the distance behind the Virgin and child is painted with the same tonal values as the quince: clear visual implication that it is the light of the risen Christ that bathes the idealised landscape.
Given the important of the quince to the overall scheme of the painting, why is Madonna of the pear so inaptly titled? Quite simply, when it was painted in 1485, Bellini’s Madonna had no title. Few, if any, paintings of the time did. But as renaissance works have endured, been unearthed, and become reified cultural treasures, they have acquired titles or identifiers that have often have little to do with the full complexity of renaissance iconography. Sadly, it is a mistake that keeps surfacing in exhibition catalogues and academic research alike, and potentially impedes understanding of a beautiful work.
But this is the conundrum of historical art- how can we in the 21st century know with certainty how a viewer in the 15th would react to the painting- intellectually, emotionally or culturally? To identify the work as ‘devotional art’ is not the same as understanding its place within a quattrocento villa or specific religious tradition, nor does it indicate its contested nature, projected by history away from its original context. To treat it as an aesthetic work is to downplay that significance, and remove those very things that embed meaning in the Madonna of the pear‘s symbolic details.
Art does not occur in a vacuum: it is an articulation of the culture and society, the artistic tensions between convention and innovation, that it was created within. They are objects intimately connected with people, emerging from a background that connects with- or resists connection with- our own cultural furniture. It is this connection that resonates with modern viewers, once the rich beauty of the panel has awoken a sense of wonder: but how can we begin to understand how a viewer five centuries ago would have lived, looked, thought and prayed when the misconceptions of the past are perpetuated?
It might start with a single fruit…