Madonna and Child A Treatise on the Culture of the Cucumber

We remember the fish which we ate in Egypt freely, the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlic.” [1] As the Hebrews flee from the Egyptians and dissension builds amongst the people, the absence of the luxury of the cucumbers is one of the losses that makes them question their new freedom. This complaint, in John Wycliffe’s bible, is the first textual mention of the fruit. [2] The history of the cucumber itself or cucumis sativus, however, stretches beyond this point of reference for many centuries.

As a native to southwestern asia, the fruit of the cucumber has been picked since the prehistoric era. [3] The Egyptians’ use of the cucumber (whether they gave them to their Hebrew slaves or not) was noticeable enough to earn a mention of the fruit in the Bible. The Roman empire spread the fruit throughout its region, but a dissenting source does claim that the arrival of the fruit in England did not occur until the fourteenth century. [4] In the fourth volume of The Natural History, Pliny devotes a chapter to the cultivation and medicinal uses of the “wild cucumber.” [5] Despite its believed curing qualities, the cucumber fell out of favor with the health community in Europe in the eighteenth century as it was suspected to be troublesome to the digestive tract. [6] This belief is probably what excluded the cucumber from the medicinal recipe of gazpacho mentioned in the recipe’s history. The wide variations of the fruit make it difficult to place its appearance in a specific time in Europe and the New World. [7] Despite these mysteries, the unique fruit finds its place amongst history, particularly in the early modern period.

James McPhail, the gardener to the noble Lord Hawkesbury provides an insightful look into the cultivation and the ways people in the early modern period would have conceived of cucumbers, in his work, A Treatise on the Culture of the Cucumber. The London climate presented a difficult challenge for the growing of the fruit. The distinguished gardener even worried that the failures of his cucumber crop would cost him his job. He claims his “anxiety” was “by no degrees lessened,” and he feared he was “in danger of losing both his place and character.” [8] The prevalence of cucumbers was “required in the family.” [9] These glimpses into McPhail’s career show the importance of cucumbers as a presence in the noble household. The necessity of cucumbers was not limited to the Hawkesbury land. McPhail consulted numerous sources including his neighbors in an attempt to learn more about the fragile fruit. He references Dr. Hunter’s work in Evelyn’s Silva and Reverend Robert Pierson’s findings in Hunter’s Georgical Essays. [10] He even goes so far as to critique other gardeners’ works by stating, “[...] several, who have written on gardening, have taken more pains, and shown greater abilities in informing gentlemen what gardeners ought to do, than they have done in teaching gardeners how to do.” [11] These references to other works show the seriousness with which the art of gardening was pursued, but also, particularly, the widespread need to grow cucumbers. A cucumber, especially one outside of season, could represent an emblem of wealth to the family who could produce it. Cucumbers are low in calories and nutrients so they did not provide a useful crop for the peasantry. The upper classes, on the other hand, could serve this fruit as a tasty, but expensive treat for their guests. A cucumber outside of its growing season also showed a masterful command over nature that would have been celebrated. This curious fruit presented symbolic inferences that translated into art.

Carlo Crivelli's painting, Madonna and Child (pictured above), features a cucumber in its upper left corner. Since the painting was completed circa 1480, the work provides a much earlier look at the way cucumbers were represented. [12] Cucumbers were not a rarity in Crivelli's paintings. In his famous Annunciation, the fruit appears on the street in front of Mary's dwelling. The cucumber makes another appearance in The Virgin Enthroned with Child and Saints in the vine at the top of the painting just as in the image displayed in this article. Poet Peter Porter makes a reference to the prevalence of these cucumbers in one of his poems by stating, “I heard Crivelli's cucumbers / crying out for paint.” [13] Cucumbers were clearly a identifiable image in Crivelli's time.

In this particular painting, Madonna and Child, an image of Mary and her son, Jesus is depicted. The refined idealism depicted in the mother and her child is contrasted with the realistic depiction of the fruit. From a modern standpoint, the insertion of a cucumber into this theologically symbolic painting seems out of place. However, the fruit serves its own purpose in the narrative that Crivelli is depicting. Previously, the cucumber was referenced in the Bible as the Hebrews complained about its loss. In this context, it would seem that the fruit is a symbol of weakness or temptation. However, the cucumber also makes an appearance in the book of Jonah. After Jonah spent three days in the whale, he sat outside the city of Ninevah. “And the Lord God made ready an ivy, and it went upon the head of Jonah, that shadow that shade were on his head, and covered him; for he had travailed. And Jonah was glad on the ivy, with great gladness.” [14] In this verse, the “ivy” was often depicted as a gourd or cucumber. Jonah's three days in the whale and miraculous return to dry land prefigured Christ's death and resurrection. As the cucumber provided protection for Jonah in this context, it served as a symbol of redemption. Crivelli clearly favored this interpretation as he juxtaposed this symbol of salvation with the typically negative image of the apple. Since the apple is associated with the creation narrative in Genesis, it is a symbol of the fall of man to sin. Crivelli presents a symbolic depiction of good and evil to frame the image of the Holy Mother and Christ.

The cucumber also works on a literal level of interpretation. In paintings, items of trade and rarity are often depicted to express wealth. In Lisa Jardine's Worldy Goods, she discusses the “mercantilisim” and “aquisitiveness” that marked the Renaissance period. [15] In this sort of analysis, the emphasis is usually placed on imported carpets and depictions of gold and jewels. The cucumber, as an item of luxury and surplus, fits well into this tradition of wealth. The perishable food is a transitory symbol of wealth that could be permanently preserved in Crivelli's painting.

In today’s society, cucumbers are just another ingredient tossed into a salad, but, for the people in the early modern period, cucumbers were a representation of excess, salvation, and the ever-envious ability to have surplus.


[1],. 2014. 'Numbers 11:5 - Bible Gateway'.

[2],. 1677. 'Home : Oxford English Dictionary'.

[3] Cucumber. (2000). In Cambridge world history of food. Retrieved from

[4] Ibid.

[5] Google Books,. 2014. 'The Natural History Of Pliny'.

[6] Cucumber. (2000). In Cambridge world history of food. Retrieved from

[7] Ibid.

[8] McPhail, James. 1795. 'A Treatise On The Culture Of The Cucumber (Open Library)'.Openlibrary.Org.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12],. 'Carlo Crivelli | Madonna And Child | The Metropolitan Museum Of Art'. N.p., 2014. Web. 2 Dec. 2014.

[13] Porter, Peter. 'The Great Poet Comes Here In Winter | Clivejames.Com'. N.p., 2014. Web. 2 Dec. 2014.

[14] Bible Gateway,. 'Bible Gateway Passage: Jonah 4 - Wycliffe Bible'. N.p., 2014. Web. 2 Dec. 2014.

[15] Jardine, Lisa. Worldy Goods. London: Macmillan, 1996. Print.