Above, from left to right: A potted dwarf pomegranate flowering and fruiting now; a detail of a pomegranate tree depicted in The Unicorn Is Attacked; a full-sized pomegranate ripening on a tree set in the ground in Bonnefont Garden. Pomegranates are deciduous; the leaves turn a bright yellow before falling in October. By the Middle Ages, the exotic eastern fruit had long been cultivated in southern Europe. Although it is not cold-hardy, pomegranate has been grown in the gardens of The Cloisters from their beginnings.
I went down into the nut orchard,
to look at the blossoms of the
To see whether the vines had budded,
whether the pomegranates were
Before I was aware, my fancy set me
in a chariot beside my prince.
—Song of Solomon 6:11 and 12 (Revised Standard Version)
Although the famously stylized pomegranate tree depicted in The Unicorn in Captivity at The Cloisters may be the most notable example in the Museum’s collection, many hours could be spent pomegranate-hunting in the Egyptian, Ancient Near Eastern, Greek and Roman, Medieval, and Islamic galleries of the Met. Pomegranates can be found not only in European painting and decorative arts, but also in Persian, Indian, and Chinese artworks and artifacts. No fruit in the annals of ethnobotany has enjoyed a longer or more storied career.
Pomegranate has been prized as a refreshment, a medicament, and a symbol of fecundity and the hope of eternal life for thousands of years. Its many seeds, which are red, juicy, and abundant, have made it an emblem of fertility and regeneration in both the east and the west. It has been exploited as a source of erotic metaphors and similes in love poetry, deposited in tombs and carved on funerary monuments, and employed as both an aid to procreation and a contraceptive. Recent scientific investigations have established the presence of estrogenic compounds in pomegranate, and scientific studies of its effects on sperm count and testosterone in laboratory animals seem to support its ancient reputation.
In traditional societies, the mythological and religious significance of the pomegranate can’t be readily be separated from its value as a food or its health-giving properties. The economic outlook for pomegranate as a crop plant is so rosy that it has been proposed as a substitute for opium cultivation in Afghanistan. We are in the midst of a pomegranate craze in the United States; extraordinary health benefits are being claimed for the fruit, and marketing campaigns are taking full advantage of the world’s stock of pomegranate lore. Lynda Resnick, the Pomegranate Princess profiled in The New Yorker magazine last year (see article), and her husband Stewart, co-owner of PomWonderful, have stocked shelves across the country with the bottled juice of California pomegranates. As of the spring of 2008, the Resnicks had invested $23 million investigating pomegranate’s effects on a host of medical conditions, and had earmarked another $7 million for additional clinical trials in order to support their claims for their product.
These claims may now exceed even those made for the therapeutic virtues of pomegranate in antiquity and the Middle Ages. The Greek herbalist Dioscorides carefully explicated the uses of all parts of the pomegranate in the first book of his De Materia Medica, including the flowers, the rind of the fruit, the seeds, and the juice pressed from them. Pomegranate flowers have an independent career in medieval herbals as a medicament known as balaustia.
Manuscripts of the medieval health handbook known as Tacuinum Sanitatis discriminate between sweet and sour pomegranates. The sweet granata dulcia, considered to be warmer in action than the cooler, moister fruit of the sour pomegranate, was thought to be good for procreation. The sour pomegranate, granata acetosa, was famous as a refrigerant, i.e., a medicament used to cool the body, and it remained a sovereign remedy for the thirst induced by fever for centuries. This property was applied not only to physical fever but to its spiritual counterpart, the heat of sin and the soul’s thirst for the Holy Spirit. (See “Holy Medicine and Diseases of the Soul: Henry of Lancaster and Le Livre de Seyntz Medicines“.)
More—much more—to come, but in small doses, over the course of time.