Friday, January 11, 2008

Oranges and Lemons

I remember admiring this painting, Zurbaran's Still Life with Lemons, Oranges and a Rose (1633), in the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena. According to the museum's website: "The citrons are a paschal fruit and, with the orange blossoms, suggest chastity. Love and purity are symbolized in the rose and water-filled cup. An air of gravity and spiritual austerity proceeds from the strict horizontal rhythm and the limitation of detail. Indeed, the objects appear to have a mystical allusion, just like the votive offerings on an altar." (Comments on Francisco de Zurbarán, Spanish, 1598-1664, Norton Simon Museum website .)

In the book Citrus: A History, author Pierre Laszlo takes a broader view of the painting. He points out the significance of the Asian origins of citrus, the rose, and the porcelain. In earlier chapters of the book, he had in fact traced the introduction of orange-growing, which originated in the Far East, and traveled along various trade routes through Arab lands and the Mediterranean. He thus presents a conjecture: "that the spirituality of this painting ... derives from Eastern mysticisms, such as Sufi mysticism and its placement of the supreme value on purity." He sees an allegory: "To look at this painting is to open oneself, one's inner life, to a transcendental notion." (Citrus: A History, p. 163)

Although not usually so classified, Laszlo sees this as a religious painting: "symbolic homage to the Virgin Mary," especially indicated by the symbolism of the rose (divine love, purity), the lemons and oranges (chastity), and the citrus blossoms (fecundity). Laszlo connects this symbolism to the earlier Arab and Jewish presence in Spain. It's all very interesting, but I really wonder if he could demonstrate the connections he proposes.

I am enjoying Laszlo's book: the extremely broad interpretation of Zurbaran's painting is an example of his approach to the topic -- wide-ranging, very personal, based on historic details but refusing to be limited by them.

More prosaic history in the book is also very interesting. Several years ago, I attempted to find out when and how orange juice became a commodity part of the American breakfast. Using obscure pamphlets in the University of Michigan library, I managed to find our some answers, concerning the development of citrus groves in Florida and California at the end of the 19th century, the development of railroad transport to major East-coast cities, the invention of the industrial process for making frozen OJ concentrate, and the creation of public awareness and taste for their products. Among many other parts of the history of citrus fruit, Laszlo now presents this material in a popular and accessible format. There are lots of other topics covered as well.

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