Strawberries as an "Earthly Delight"

I’ve been thinking about Hieronymous Bosch and The Garden of Earthly Delights (c. 1510-1515) quite a bit this week. In fact, this afternoon I sat down to write a post about how Bosch’s “tree-man” (located in the center of the panel which depicts Hell) is believed by some to be a self-portrait of the artist.1 But, I’m not going to write on that. At least not right now.

Instead, I’ve become pleasantly distracted by Walter S. Gibson’s article, “The Strawberries of Hieronymous Bosch.” These strawberries appear all over the central panel of The Garden of Earthly Delights altarpiece (see details on right and below). Gibson notes that Bosch’s strawberries garnered attention from viewers very early on. In fact, in 1593 an inventory for some of Philip II’s pictures mentions that the altarpiece had earned the nickname the Madroño (or “the Strawberry”).2 Twelve years later a librarian at El Escorial, Philip’s monastery-palace, explained that the panel is “of the vanity and glory and the passing taste of strawberries or the strawberry plant and its pleasant odor that is hardly remembered once it has passed.”3 This librarian, named Fray José de Sigüenza, felt that the strawberry was the most important feature of Bosch’s garden, and was the fruit was a symbol of the ephemeral, transient nature of earthly pleasures.

Many symbolic interpretations for the strawberries have been put forward, and most of them have negative connotations.4 For example,  strawberries have multiple seeds, which could hint at promiscuity.5 The other fruit included in the central panel (such as the big raspberries) could also be associated with promiscuity for this same reason.

Gibson suggests that the strawberry imagery might connected to a text by Virgil (which probably would have been familiar to Bosch and Hendrik III because Virgil’s passage is referenced in Roman de la Rose, a popular poem in the Burgundian court). In this text, Virgil warns children to not gather strawberries, because “the cold, evil serpent” is hiding the grass nearby. It seems to me that Bosch’s strawberries could serve as an indirect reference to a serpent (and, by extension, the Fall and sin). Such associations fit well with the imagery for The Garden of Earthly Delights, don’t you think? That being said, I also think that there isn’t just one specific symbolic meaning for these strawberries. Since this altarpiece undoubtedly served as a focus for intellectual discussion, it is appropriate that Bosch used imagery that was replete with symbolic associations.

Do you know of any other interpretations for the strawberries in this altarpiece? Do you know of any works of art which also include strawberries for symbolic reasons? On a fun side note, I found an amusing comparison between Katy Perry and Bosch’s fruit here. No doubt that Perry would view Bosch’s strawberries as a symbol of sexuality!

1 David G. Wilkins, Bernard Schultz, Katheryn M. Linduff, Art Past Art Present, 6th edition, (Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2009), 327.

2 Walter S. Gibson, “The Strawberries of Hieronymous Bosch,” in Cleveland Studies in the History of Art 8 (2003): 25.

3 Ibid.

4 There are some positive interpretations of the strawberry which exist. In fact, Gibson points out that the strawberry was seen a medieval symbol of the Virgin. Such exalted associations with the fruit have led a handful of individuals to interpret Bosch’s central panel as a scene of transcendent bliss and spiritual love. For a brief synopsis of these interpretations, see Gibson, 26-27. 

5 Wilkins, 326.

  • Hels says:

    I agree that from the context of these particular Bosch images, things are not looking good for the strawberry. “Promiscuity” and the “ephemeral, transient nature of earthly pleasures” are both good candidates for the hidden meaning of the fruit. So is “immodesty”.

    But just to show that fruit can have different meanings, we should acknowledge that the strawberry's round, lovely fruit was often a symbol of “perfect goodness” and “fruitfulness”. The strawberry, full of graceful form and pure colours, was often a holy symbol of the Virgin Mary.

    Perhaps cunning old Bosch was playing around with symbols, intentionally having fun. Or being ironic, using a symbol of perfection …as a symbol of promiscuity.

  • dcbyron says:

    Nice post, Monica. It's neither a painting nor contemporary with Bosch, but Othello features a handkerchief embroidered with strawberries as the chief prop by means of which Iago persuades Othello that Desdemona is having an affair with the Florentine, Michael Cassio

    I: "She may be honest yet. Tell me but this,
    Have you not sometimes seen a handkerchief
    Spotted with strawberries in your wife's hand?"

    O: "I gave her such a one; 'twas my first gift."

    I: "I know not that; but such a handkerchief–
    I am sure it was your wife's–did I to-day
    See Cassio wipe his beard with."

    As I recall, there's a good bit of info about strawberry iconography in the literature about that play.

  • M says:

    Thanks for your comments, Hels and dcbyron! You both brought up interesting topics. Gibson briefly mentions both Othello and strawberries as a symbol symbol of the Virgin Mary in his article.

    Gibson does include an image of a painting "Madonna of the Strawberries" (attributed to Martin Schongauer, late 15th century, Musees de Strasbourg) in order to discuss the positive associations with the Virgin. However, he didn't analyze the strawberry in terms of "graceful form and pure colours" – I like those ideas, Hels!

    Gibson mentions Othello to support the argument that the strawberry had a longstanding association with negativity. After sharing the Othello quote, Gibson writes in his article, "Thus by Shakespeare's day [late 16th and early 17th century], the strawberry had long been a symbol for hypocrisy, deceit in general, and death concealed beneath a smiling appearance" (Gibson, 29). It is very likely that Bosch, who is painting in the early 16th century, was also interested in these same symbolic meanings.

  • heidenkind says:

    Wasn't Katy Perry an art history major in college? I remember reading that somewhere…

  • Dr. F says:

    In "Nature and Its Symbols" Lucia Impelluso writes "Although the Scriptures make no mention of strawberries, the plant is commonly considered a flower of the Earthly Paradise." She noted Ovid's reference to the Golden Age when "man ate fruits that the Earth spontaneously provided, including the strawberry."

    She also mentions that it also was used in christian symbolism.


  • H Niyazi says:

    Great post M! Much has been written about the strawberry in art. The association with The Virgin arose from the Franciscan veneration of Mary and of Nature. The three partitioned leaf was also seen in the Middle Ages as an allusion to the Holy Trinity, the fruits seen as drops of Christ's blood and the five petals seen in its flower denoting Christ's five wounds. Hence the repeated appearances in Manuscript and painting of the Middle Ages across Europe.

    I know youve posted on Durer's 'Mary and the Many Animals' before – the christ child in that is holding a strawberry. HQ image link

    Of course there are mentions of it in ancient sources, including not only Virgil but Ovid and Pliny.

    The negative association began to creep in later, with a strawberry birthmark being associated with witchcraft – something ascribed to one of Henry VIIIs wives (Anne Boleyn if I recall correctly). For this reason, women began avoiding strawberries whilst pregnant.

    A great source on medieval symbolism, very useful for understanding the antecedents of Renaissance iconography is Lipffert's classic Symbol-Fibel, but only available in German unfortunately. The closest you can get in English is the epic 2 volume "Images and ideas in the Middle Ages" by Gerhart/Ladner.

    Most readings of Bosch tend to go with the use of the fruit to suggest voluptous pleasures, something hearkening back to its Pagan roots.

    Northern Renaissance artists were particularly fond of Ovid. (Even the original frame of The Arnolfini Portrait is said to have contained an Ovidian inscription). You don't need to look far in Book I of Metamorphoses to see what inspired Bosch's Garden vision. In the Section called the Golden Age you get the following:

    "The earth herself also, freely, without the scars of ploughs, untouched by hoes, produced everything from herself.

    Contented with food that grew without cultivation, they collected mountain strawberries and the fruit of the strawberry tree, wild cherries, blackberries clinging to the tough brambles, and acorns fallen from Jupiter’s spreading oak-tree.

    Spring was eternal, and gentle breezes caressed with warm air the flowers that grew without being seeded. Then the untilled earth gave of its produce and, without needing renewal, the fields whitened with heavy ears of corn.

    Sometimes rivers of milk flowed, sometimes streams of nectar, and golden honey trickled from the green holm oak."

    Kind Regards

  • M says:

    heidenkind: I think you might be thinking of this MTV post about Katy Perry wearing dress inspired by Man Ray. I'm pretty sure the writer is being facetious about Perry's background in art history. At least, Wikipedia says so. She apparently she began to pursue music after getting a GED in high school.

    Frank and H Niyazi: Thanks for the comments! I'm glad that both of you mentioned Ovid, and I like the quotes that you both included. As H mentioned, Northern artists were fond of Ovid. In fact, Pieter Bruegel the Elder (whose work was once sold under Bosch's name) was also inspired by Ovid's "Metamorphoses" in his depiction of The Fall of Icarus.

    Also, I didn't even think about the strawberry birthmark and its negative connotations! Interesting thought, H!

  • Adam Glenn says:

    Those strawberries in the painting are definitely from Costco, they are so big.

  • M says:

    Ha ha! The central panel is just about a busy as COSTCO on a Saturday morning, too!

  • heidenkind says:

    You read my mind, M, that's the exact post I was thinking of. 🙂 Oh well, I guess we can't all be art history majors. *flips hair self-importantly* 😉

  • Nick E. says:

    Not sure if it has been mentioned yet, but upon seeing the strawberries in the work, and how they are used as a narrative device for a Christian understanding of humankind’s place in the world, the symbolism of the ‘forbidden fruit’ (referenced in Genesis) was the first interpretation to jump out at me. I think there is good reason to believe that the strawberries represent the infamous forbidden fruit of the Adam and Eve story, further alluding to Man’s Original Sin.

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.