Thursday, February 26, 2009

The seeded apple of my eye

Pomegranate seeds and their surrounding pulp are edible bursts of tart crimson with crunch. In the west, pomegranate juice, touted for its antioxidant properties, has become the ingredient de jour in soft drinks, shampoo and even vodka, although it has been part of Middle Eastern cuisine for ages.

The pomegranate, Punica granatum, was first cultivated in Iran several thousand years ago, but with time cultures throughout the world eventually adopted and planted the shrub. Besides consuming the cherry-colored crowned fruit, they used it in their mythologies and iconography and extracted its juice for dyes.

To draw attention to the pomegranate’s past, textile and costume curator Dilys Blum of the Philadelphia Museum of Art has put together nine textiles from the museum’s collection that highlight the fruit as a motif.

Illustrated, above left, from the exhibition, is a velvet ecclestiastical garment called a chasuble from 1450-1480 Italy with the pomegranate in a reverse pile or cut out. Pomegranates in Christian vestments with seeds bursting symbolized Christ's suffering, the museum says.

Also in the show is a silk from Spain, from the 16th century, with both the full fruit and the seeds represented. The textile is believed to originate from Granada, which means pomegranate in Spanish. The fruit remains the symbol of the city. Other items with pomegranate imagery that she found include a 17th century Italian lace, a 20th century Uzbekistan woven silk, and an 18th century block printed cotton from France.

The word pomegranate derives from the Latin pomum, apple, and granatus, seeded. Egyptians buried their dead with it; Greeks associate it with Persephone, the goddess of the underworld and spring; the Jews embroidered its image into the garments of high priests because it symbolized righteousness and fruitfulness. Some argue the pomegranate was the "apple" in the Garden of Eden. Click here for more information about the pomegranate in other cultures.

Living in the tyranny of the fashionable now--with pomegranate cookies, pomegranate yogurt and pomegranate martinis--exhibitions such as these remind where such tastes arose.

(Image courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.)

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