G.M. Darrow, The Strawberry: History, Breeding and Physiology
This chapter was written by Mary Wallace Bruggmann.
BEGINNING IN the earliest years of the 1400's the monks of Western Europe were using the round-fruited, wild strawberry in their "illuminated" manuscripts. Long before the large-fruited strawberry was brought from Chile to Europe, long before the scientists looked upon the fraise des bois or wood strawberry with a taxonomic eye, the monastic painters had gazed upon it and found it lovely, and worthy to share in their offerings to the Virgin Mary.
Toward the end of the 1300's a new spirit was spreading throughout Europe which was reflected in a freer and more natural artistic style. Emile Mile, in his great work on Gothic art, calls it the awakening of human tenderness and suggests that it sprang from St. Francis of Assisi who loved all Creation, and who aroused in his brother monks the love of nature and the need to express it. The monks were the artists of the time and they were occupied with the brightening, or "illumination" of prayer books, and the paintings of tiny illustrations -- "miniatures" -- for the religious texts which they copied by hand. In their newly stirred feelings they began to look at the world around them, to see the details of nature and of everyday life, and they painted what appealed to them and what they thought beautiful.
Simultaneously with the flowering of human tenderness which began with St. Francis, we find the desire of the mystics to come nearer to the Virgin and to glorify her. They spent hours in contemplation of her and the Infant Jesus. They wrote poems to her, giving her all the virtues and calling her by the names of all the flowers. They lost themselves in veneration of her, and when they made pictures of her, they adorned them with all that was precious and rare.
In a French miniature of about 1400 we see the strawberry, in the hand of Joseph who is holding it out toward the little Child Jesus, coaxing Him to take His first step.1 In another, Mary, against a background of flowers, has her Child on her knee and angels are gathering strawberries, presumably for the Infant.
It may be that the monks first began drawing the strawberry plant because of its graceful form and pure colors, or it may be that the fruit was just becoming widely known. The French King, Charles V, was a patron of the miniaturists, and by 1386 he had 12,000 strawberry plants set out in his Royal Gardens.2
There was much traveling from monastery to monastery, from Italy to southern France, up toward Paris and Burgundy, to Germany and Flemish provinces and over to England. The influence of the miniaturists spread northward, to the Rhineland, and it was there that the theme of the Mother and Child received its most charming portrayal.
So we come to these touching paintings of the School of Cologne: "The Madonna of the Roses," "The Garden of Paradise," and the "Madonna among the Strawberries." The Madonna is always a young girl seated in a closed garden (to indicate her virginity), holding the blessed Child in quiet but radiant joy. The artists, Lochner, Schongauer, and unknown masters, have surrounded her with a brilliant galaxy of flowers and plants among which is the strawberry. The Virgin's flower, the rose, is in predominance, but the thistle, carnation, lily of the valley, iris, primrose, and entire plants of the fraise des bois with its red fruit and white blossoms also are present. The plants may form the entire decoration as in our frontispiece, or a single plant may be placed in an important spot, at the feet of the Madonna or in the Child's hand. They are botanically exact, perfect likenesses of the original, round-fruited, wild, European vesca, which still fascinates the gardener of today. (See Plate 2-1.)
In her stimulating book on the symbolism in the pictures of the Middle Ages (Symbol-Fibel). Klementine Lippfert guides us into the meaning which flowers and plants as well as animals, colors and objects had for the people of that time. Elizabeth Haight, in her book, Symbolism of the Great Masters (1913), writes "the strawberry stands apart from all other symbolical fruits. It is found in Italian, Flemish and German art and also in English miniatures. As a symbol it is not only widespread but of comparatively early origin . . . . It is the symbol of perfect righteousness." There is ample evidence that medieval art is permeated with symbolism and that every object had its own particular significance. Certain symbols, the Cross, the fish, the thorn, originated in the Scriptures and were carried on through Christian tradition. Others developed gradually in an atmosphere of intense religious feeling. The rose represented virginity and purity; the carnation, because of the shape of its calyx, suggested the nails of the Crucifixion; and herbs of medicinal virtue suggested the healing powers of Christ. The whole of the strawberry plant was used (the dried roots, the leaves and fruit) . The Symbol-Fibel tells us that it was a cure for depressive illnesses, and its presence can be considered a reference to eternal salvation. "It stood for noble thought and modesty, for although it is conspicuous by its color and fragrance, it nevertheless bows humbly to the earth."3 In a further quotation we read, "Künzle (the herbalist) writes that the people of the middle ages saw in the three partitioned leaf a reminder of the Holy Trinity; the fruits, pointed downward, were the drops of blood of the Christ; and the five petals of the flower, His five wounds."4 (See Plates 2-2 and 2-3.)
With so many qualities attributed to it, it need not surprise us that we repeatedly encounter the strawberry, as entire plants in the foreground of a picture, or as individual berries and blossoms or garlands forming the border of a miniature. As far as we have seen, they occur most frequently in the presentations of the Madonna and of the Christ. They usually are the round vesca, but we have also detected the more elongated Alpine vesca which, quite properly, is in a Swiss tapestry of about 1490. It is apparently the same plant which grows on the hills around Lake Geneva today. The subject of the tapestry is the Resurrection. Around the tomb from which the Christ is rising, the strawberry and a variety of other plants are growing, the symbol of continuous life.
When we speak of medieval art we mean religious art, but we have one notable exception in the "Garden of Delights," or "Strawberry Tree" as it was first called, by the Dutch painter Hieronymous Bosch (1455-1516). It is an allegorical, complicated triptych with hundreds of details and with curious unclothed people. We mention it only because of the scenes which call such marked attention to the fragrance of the "fragaria." A naked group of three is kneeling beside a berry half as large as themselves, smelling it as though to take nourishment from it. Another group has formed a circle, and is balancing and playing with a gigantic, out-sized berry as though it were a balloon. The accepted interpreter of Bosch, Wilhelm Franger, thinks that the painter was using it, along with the grape, cherry and apple, as a sign of voluptuousness. (See Plate 2-4.)
Toward the early 1500's there was another evolution in man and in art. The Renaissance was developing a more worldly style which replaced the manner of the mystics. On the threshold between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, A. Durer (German School, 1471-1528) made a drawing of "Mary and the Many Animals." lt is one of the last of the symbolical pictures in which we have seen the strawberry. It shows a more sophisticated Madonna sitting in her garden with animals all about her, and the little Christ-Child is reaching out from His Mother's knee to grasp the tri-parted leaf from a growing strawberry plant.5
1 Mâle, Vol. III, p. 153.
2 Hyams, p. 17.
3 Lippfert, p. 17
4 Ibid., p. 57.
5 It was my brother Henry W. Wallace's interest in strawberries which first led me to see the plants in the Gothic paintings, and it was his delight when I would discover one depicting strawberries which induced me to write down, without any pretensions, these few observations. That -- and a persistent affection for the flavor and fragrance of the fraise des bois.