The Pomegranate: Symbolism, Iconography and Textiles

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Its image has been subject of many myths and legends, its bark has been used to cure leather, its peel and flowers have been used to dye textiles and wool, its fruit has been prized for its delicious taste and medicinal properties- and its calyx has said to have been the inspiration for what we know today as the Tiara.The pomegranate, a globular-shaped fruit filled with juicy red seeds inside a hard shell, appears in the mythologies and artefacts of several ancient Near Eastern cultures.

In ancient Persia, it was believed that the “Anaar” (Persian for pomegranates) were akin to an ancient viagra and increased male potency, leading to their reputation as a fearsome fruit of invincibility. Ostensibly, when the Persians went into the Battle of Issus against Alexander the Great, they all had pomegranates speared on their weapons as an amulet of protection.

The Greek goddess Hera, whose crown was shaped to the calyx of the pomegranate, reflected the same life and death duality the ancient Greeks associated with the fruit. Hera was simultaneously a kind mother goddess, yet vengeful to those who had offended her, or slept with her husband Zeus. According to tradition, king Solomon’s crown too was fashioned in the shape of a pomegranate calyx. The archeological discoveries of pomegranate scepters suggest that these may have been used in royal or cultic context. The pomegranate calyx crown design went on to become the basic shape for the rest of the royal hair accessories worn throughout the centuries.

In terms of fashion, the pomegranate has had an extraordinary impact on textiles. Much like the Persian Paisley and other floral patterns, such as carnations and blooming palms, the stylised pomegranate pattern made its way to Western Europe through trade routes from the far east, more specifically the Ottoman empire. The motif was adopted by Western European artisans and dominated the textile design of the Renaissance. Textiles were considered luxury goods, among the most expensive one could afford. Creating textiles with complex designs took an enormous amount of time and incredibly skilled artisans.

There were additional factors that added to the exorbitant cost and value of textiles incorporated with the pomegranate motif; the rich colours and expensive materials required for the making of the design. Red and black dyes were among the most expensive dyes on the market and many textiles incorporated silver and gold-wrapped threads. To create such metal-wrapped threads, thin strips of gold or silver would be wrapped around a strand of silk thread and this was woven into the fabric.

When we look at art during the Renaissance period, textiles with the pomegranate motif show up in a large number of portraits and religious imagery. This was not just because of the pattern’s visual beauty or popularity, but the use of these textiles served as a potent expression of wealth and power. More importantly, the prevalence of pomegranate iconography in the visual culture of the Renaissance serves as evidence for the then growing interaction between cultures and economies, peoples growing concerns with ones self-image– and a new interaction with material goods.