La Granada - The Pomegranate in New Spain

A recurring motif in art and literature worldwide and in New Mexico

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THE POMEGRANATE, la granada in Spanish, has been a recurring motif in art and literature for more than 2000 years. It is depicted in Chinese porcelains, Turkish textiles, Italian paintings, Norwegian coverlets, Spanish chests, Mexican embroideries and New Mexican colcha. It is mentioned in Greek mythology, in the Qur’an, the Bible and the Torah. Oscar Wilde wrote about it and Botticelli painted it.

The History & Symbolism of the Pomegranate

The pomegranate is a most interesting fruit, not only for its beauty and the challenge of eating it, but also for its renown as a religious, mythical and metaphorical symbol over the centuries. The significance of the pomegranate crosses geographical, political and religious boundaries. One of the earliest references to the pomegranate still familiar to us today is in the Greek myth of Demeter and Persephone. Persephone, daughter of Demeter, mistakenly eats some pomegranate seeds in the company of Hades and thus is committed to spending a portion of each year in the Underworld. Demeter, in her despair, does not allow anything to grow in her daughter’s absence, thereby creating our seasons.

In the Koran, pomegranates are mentioned as one of the gifts of Allah. In the Jewish faith, the pomegranate was said to have 613 seeds representing the 613 commandments of the Torah, and it was often used to decorate the Torah and its coverings. The pomegranate flower was featured on the shekels and half-shekels minted during the Jewish Revolt in 66–70 CE. They were decorated with a chalice on one side with the year of the revolt and three budding pomegranates on the other, a reference to the Holy Temple built by Solomon in Jerusalem, on which was carved 200 pomegranates. In early Christian doctrine, the pomegranate’s many seeds were symbolic of the individual members of the church that were brought together by their faith. Some believe that Eve was tempted with a pomegranate in the Garden of Eden rather than an apple: the actual fruit is not identified in the Old Testament Book of Genesis.

Pomegranate sahumador

Incense Burner / Sahumador
Argentina or Bolivia, 19th c
Silver and Brass
Museum of Spanish Colonial Art, Santa Fe

The sahumador became a part of Spanish culture under the influence of the Muslims. In South America, sahumadores were used either for perfuming homes or for perfuming clothing and bedding. The pomegranate was a popular form used to burn incense in a room.


 

Most frequently the pomegranate is a symbol of fertility, birth and eternal life, owing to its abundance of seeds. Its deep blood red color has led to its interpretation as a symbol of death. It also represents unity, illustrated by the many seeds bound together in a single skin. It is a symbol of royalty, owing to its crown-like terminal atop an orb. St. John of God, whose attribute is the pomegranate, brought additional significance to the fruit. Born in Portugal in late 15th century, John of God (Juan de Dios) moved to Granada where he devoted his life to the service of the poor and sick. San Juan de Dios founded his first hospital in Granada; now there are hospitals dedicated to San Juan de Dios throughout Spain and much of Europe. Owing to his work in Granada, the pomegranate became his attribute, and it, in turn, has become a symbol of healing. It is now incorporated into the emblems of many medical institutions, such as the Royal College of Physicians of London.

In art, the pomegranate may be depicted in blossom as well as in immature and mature states. Often the motif becomes stylized, sometimes almost beyond recognition, but it persists nonetheless.

The Pomegranate in Spain and New Spain

The pomegranate was first cultivated in the Middle East. It then spread east to China and west to Africa and the Mediterranean. Pomegranates proliferated in southern Spain and eventually the city of Granada was named for them. When Queen Isabela and King Ferdinand conquered the last stronghold of the Muslims in Granada in 1492, they believed it such a significant milestone that a pomegranate was added to the monarchs’ coat of arms. The pomegranate was also featured on the coat of arms of their daughter, Catherine of Aragón (the first of the six wives to England’s King Henry VIII).

Spanish colonists introduced the pomegranate to the Americas shortly after the conquest. In the late 1530s the Spanish chronicler Motolinía wrote that in Puebla, Mexico, “fruit trees of every kind prosper extremely well, especially pomegranates…” Spanish missionaries brought pomegranate seeds with them to Arizona, California, and Texas, where the trees still flourish. Pomegranate motifs were embroidered on textiles and decorated silver, ceramics, furniture, jewelry, horsegear and wall paintings.

 

Pomegranate embroidery

Embroidery / Bordado
Mexico, mid-19th c, detail
Wool on cotton embroidery
Museum of Spanish Colonial Art, Santa Fe

This Mexican embroidery illustrates pomegranates around the central medallion. The inscription reads (in translation) “I serve my owner Antonia Villareal y Benavides. Ceralvoacas.” In technique and design this piece is very similar to New Mexican colcha work and demonstrates the strong influence of Mexican textiles on those made in New Mexico.

 

It is not known if the pomegranate was ever successfully cultivated in New Mexico in colonial times, but the image and symbolism of the pomegranate were widespread. The iconography was also familiar to the santeros and carpinteros of New Mexico. Both the blossom and the fruit decorate New Mexican mission pulpits, choir lofts, and religious books. The appearance of the pomegranate on a number of New Mexican chests suggests that they were made as dowry chests, the pomegranate symbolizing fertility. Drawing upon the designs of textiles from the Middle East, Spain, and Latin America, New Mexican colcha artists incorporated a stylized pomegranate into their work.

Perhaps the most ubiquitous appearance of the pomegranate in New Mexico, however, is in the Navajo squash blossom necklace. In the 19th century, Navajo silversmiths, trained by Hispano plateros, adopted the popular pomegranate form from Mexican silver ornaments, such as those found on clothing, horsegear and necklaces, and made it their own. Eventually it was renamed the squash blossom—a plant very similar in form to the pomegranate, but native to the Southwest.

The exhibition, “La Granada: the Pomegranate in New Spain,” was shown at the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art in Santa Fe, through February 2006. Images of pomegranates can be found throughout the permanent exhibition galleries at the museum.


Thanks to Robin Farwell Gavin, Curator
Museum of Spanish Colonial Art remote 750 Camino Lejo, Santa Fe, NM

Originally appeared in The Wingspread Collector’s Guide to Santa Fe, Taos & Albuquerque – Vol 20


Related Pages

Museum of Spanish Colonial Art article

What Does this Indian Symbol Mean? article

A Tradition of Making Straw into Gold article

Antique Indian Silver Jewelry article

Traditional New Mexican Hispanic Crafts article

Straw Art in New Mexico article


Collector’s Resources

Albuquerque

Wright's Indian Art | 505-266-0120

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Joan Caballero Appraisals pic PO Box 822, Santa Fe, NM | 505-982-8148
Montez Gallery / Montez + Santa Fe aka Heaven | 505-982-1828
Museum of Spanish Colonial Art rem 750 Camino Lejo on Museum Hill | 505-982-2226
Museum of Indian Arts and Culture | 505-476-1250
Museum of International Folk Art | 505-476-1145
Museum of New Mexico Foundation Shops pic At four museums in Santa Fe | 505-982-3016
New Mexico History Museum/Palace of the Governors | 505-476-5200
Que Tenga Buena Mano | 505-983-2358
The Rainbow Man | 505-982-8706

Taos

Millicent Rogers Museum | 575-758-2462

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