Although citrus was previously popular in the Roman Empire, lemons were first discovered in the Indian subcontinent.(1) The first writings about lemons appeared in the Muslim world around 900 CE, where it was used decoratively in gardens, then spread through China and Burma, through Persia and the Mediterranean, eventually reaching the Americas.(2) Their first real cultivation in the western world took place in Genoa during the 15th century.(3) Later in that century, Columbus brought lemon seeds to Hispaniola, which began their introduction in the New World. They were rapidly integrated into western culture given their aesthetic beauty and multitudinous uses.

Lemons are not a particularly easy fruit to grow though. They require a lot of time and work before the fruit is ready to be used. “The true lemon is hardly one of the regularly grown fruits in the gardens of the people generally, but rather of the well to ­do and curious.”(4) Not only is it tedious to grow, but the lemon is often used ornamentally or supplementarily, so it was only cultivated by people who had extra time and money after their basic needs were already met. It was not a fruit for the poor. The hard work they require does not yield enough calories for it to be worthwhile for those who are constantly working for their next meal. Lemons were probably not a widespread staple item until the creation of citrus orchards in the mass agriculture production of the 19 and 20th centuries. Before then, they were used as a sign of power and wealth for those who could afford to attain them merely for decoration or flavor.

In Georg Flegel’s Still Life, the lemon is seen as such, luxurious and supplementary. But, according to Erwin Panofsky’s model for interpreting symbolism, understanding the historical and allegorical context of the factual subject matter can lead to a deeper symbolic understanding which is meaningful beyond generational and geographical barriers.(5) With certain contextual understanding, such as the symbolism of lemons, the methods and aims of 17th century Dutch painters, and the common interpretations of these paintings, we are able to better interpret the symbolic meaning of the lemon in this painting.

Dutch still life paintings often include lemons. Holland does not have the climate to produce lemons, so they would most likely be imported from the regions along the Mediterranean. Because of this, lemons became a symbol of trade for the Dutch.(6) Trade was a huge source of pride for Holland, and it was a distinctive feature of their culture. With this in mind, the lemon’s frequent appearance in Dutch still life paintings becomes a symbol of power, wealth, and dominance in trade. Being able to consume such an exotic item as a lemon represents a sort of superior status in being able to pick the best of the best from around the world. This contextual understanding makes what seems like an unornamented work latent with possible meaning. In the case of Flegel’s Still Life, the lemon's status would create a connotation of wealth and power that carries over into all of the other objects in the painting.

Another important contextual factor is understanding the methods of Dutch painters at this time. One common tactic in creating a painting was to try to engage all five senses.(7) Applying this to Flegel’s Still Life, the lemon perhaps serves as a symbol of taste, given its pungent and overwhelming flavor. The wine jug could then serve as a representation of sight, since it is decorated with depictions of vines and a face. The living bird could possibly represent sound if it were chirping, while the dead bird would probably represent smell since the scent of the roast would likely be the most prominent of this table. The walnut then could be an emblem for touch since it has great texture and needs to be cracked. The two main objects left unaccounted for under this interpretation would be the bread and the wine, which have their own religious connotations. Perhaps the depiction of bread and wine, or Christ, amongst the visual representations of the senses creates a meaning that Christ is present throughout the actions of the human body, or it could even represent the spiritual dimension as another sense. With contextual understanding of how the Dutch would see the painting at this time, we are able to create all sorts of meaning out of a seemingly simple work.

Given the religious overtone of this time, with the Reformation and other religious movements, it is important to consider how that would affect the world of art. The nature of the Reformation pulled artists away from their usual religious works, and toward more simple subjects, which were better suited to “a Protestant cultural milieu.”(8) Even though they were seemingly plain, the still life paintings carried symbolic meanings with Protestant themes, such as “the importance of knowing oneself and leading a moderate life”.(9) Under this interpretation, Flegel’s Still Life emphasizes the importance of restraint. The bread and wine, as in most interpretations, would represent the body and blood of Christ, acting as a reminder of the sacrifice he made. The face on the jug could perhaps represent gluttony, or one of the other Seven Deadly Sins, as was common at this time.(10) This would peer at the eater while enjoying his or her meal, reminding him that there is something greater than indulging in what is pleasurable to the body. The roast bird, especially juxtaposed with the live bird, would symbolize the shortness of life, while the olives, symbolically representing peace with God, would emphasize the opportunity of salvation.(11) The lemon in this case would also be a warning against over indulgence, for its bright color and sweet smell are inviting, but its flavor is unbearably sour and tart. This sort of interpretation was common in 17th century Dutch still lifes, as typical religious paintings became passé.

Understanding the lemon’s role in symbolic painting can help in better understanding the way in which it was conceived in popular thought during the early modern period. It was certainly a fruit for the higher class given its impracticality as a subsistence food, but its representation in various interpretations of this painting also show that its status comes from its association with dominating trade, the overwhelming taste sensation it creates, and the warning that comes from its unique dual nature of sweet yet sour.

In gazpacho in particular, the lemon serves as one of many supplementary ingredients used to add flavor. Gazpacho was created as a cold soup that consisted of bread crumbs and a variety of vegetables and seasonings depending on what was available. Because of its variations, it was a popular dish among people of all walks of life. Over time, various commonly used ingredients became codified in the recipe. Lemons were likely one of these ingredients, originally used only in the soups of those who could afford them or had the luxury of growing them, but integrated into the body of the recipe as they became more widespread. The lemon's unique flavor makes it attractive, but also its history of being an exotic good, and its integration into all sorts of cuisine, makes it desirable as a worldly good. 

-by Kiera Maloney

1 Wright, Clifford A. History of Lemonade. http://www.cliffordawright.com/caw/food/entries/display.php/id/95/. 2014.

2 (see Wright)

3 Limmi.it. The origins. http://www.limmi.it/le­origini/?lang=en. 2013.

4 Johnson, Helen M. The Lemon in India. Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 56, No. 1 (March, 1936), pp. 47­-50.

5 Panofsky, Erwin. Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait. The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs, Vol. 64, No. 372 (March, 1934), pp. 117­-119, 122­-127.

6 Siegel, Ellen. Symbols of Change in Dutch Golden Age Still Life Paintings: Teachers’ Guide and Lesson Plan. University of Massachusetts, 2011.

7 De Girolami Cheney, Liana. The Oyster in Dutch Genre Paintings: Moral or Erotic Symbolism. Artibus et Historiae, Vol. 8, No. 15 (1987), pp. 135-­158.

8 (see Siegel)

9 (see Siegel)

10 (see De Girolami Cheney) 

11 (see Siegel)