Dianthus and Almond leaf from the Mira Calligraphiae Monumenta Manuscript

The food of ancient civilizations, the almond was a common feature of the cuisine of early modern Europe.  The sweet seed arrived in Europe by way of Asia, a likely descendant from an ancestral species found in the central and southwestern mountain slopes of the region[1].  Because they grew by populous centers in China, almonds likely journeyed with humans along the important trade routes that connected their land of origin with central Asia.[2]  From here, almonds took readily to the warm and dry lands of modern-day Israel and Turkey before spreading to the Mediterranean countries of Europe.[3]  There, Greeks from the early Bronze Age became the first people to cultivate them on the continent.[4]

Centuries after almonds secured their place in Greek and Roman culture, the conquering Moors drove the Visigoths from Spain in the eighth century and planted in their place almond trees.[5]  It was in a similar fashion that the Padres from colonizing Spain did in turn finally bring almonds to the New World.  These missionaries left almonds in their wake while settling the Mission at Santa Barbara in California during the 1700s.[6]  Just as the seeds found the climate of Old World Mediterranean ideal for their growing so did thrive in the favorable climate of New World California[7]

Living outside of the above hospitable environments, most early modern Europeans imported almonds that were relatively expensive.[8]  Despite this, almonds were often used in cooking at this time in Europe.  The seeds were prepared to make almond milk, a staple that was crucial to the Lenten foods cooked during days of fasting.[9]  They were also ground with sugar to create almond paste, an ingredient found in many confections and savory dishes[10].  Additionally, green immature almonds were a sought-after springtime delicacy.[11]

Almonds for many years held a spiritual significance to their consumers, and it is not until this early modern period that the seeds begin to be viewed with a more scientific eye.  In both the Old Testament and classical mythology, the almond is a symbol of sustainment and life.  Aaron’s rod yields these seeds in the Book of Hebrews[12] while earlier in the Book of Exodus they inspire the menorah’s design.[13]  Almonds also impregnate a nymph in Greek mythology[14] and are seen as the father of all things in Phrygian cosmology.[15]  A historically mystic fruit they went without an official scientific name or classification until the 1750s.  It was then that Carl Linnaeus dubbed them Amygdalus communis, “the common Greek nut,” and Philip Miller classified them “Prunus dulcis”.[16]

In his work Dianthus and Almond, Joris Hoefnagel depicts the almond as a dual member of the spiritual and scientific worlds of the early modern period.  The piece is a watercolor from a larger book called the Mira calligraphiae monumenta.  Originally created in 1561 by Georg Bocskay for the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand I, the book was meant to demonstrate Bocskay’s technical mastery of many different writing styles.[17]  Thirty years later, Ferdinand’s grandson, Emperor Rudolph II, commissioned Hoefnagel to illuminate Bocskay’s creation.[18]  The Dianthus and Almond painting is an example of Hoefnagel’s response, one in which he added a sumptuous amount of meticulously executed flora and fauna along and around Bocskay’s silver and gold letters.

Hoefnagel’s almond is found on, and complements, a page of especially scroll-like script.  The shell of the seed, mottled with serrated edges, curves into an oval and mirrors the rounded lettering above it.  This light tan outer layer pulls apart slightly to reveal the almond within, an almost pink fruit with lines across its surface that are also curved.  Beside the seed are almond flowers that have not yet bloomed.  A single stalk creates an arc that counters the series of rounded lines created by the script on the page before forking off into two immature blooms.  These are rendered in tan and green with hints of pink.  One of the blooms actually runs behind the original lettering and emerges out on the other side as if to overtake Bocskay’s words with its vitality and growth.     

The dynamism of Hoefnagel’s composition demonstrates the almond’s enduring status as a symbol of sustaining-life in the early modern period.  Curves are integral to Hoefnagel’s watercolor almond, and they endow the image with a sense of energy and motion.  When encountered with scrolling text above it, the work appears active and alive.  Moreover, both the almond seed and the almond bud are poised in the moments before a birth of sorts.  The shell of the almond is starting to crack so as to expel its seed.  A stage earlier, the bud is about to open up and release its flower from within.  That Hoefnagel’s almond breaks into the space of Bocskay’s text also evidences the almond’s continuing representation of life at this time.  Because the almond plant cannot be constrained or stopped by human handiwork, it stands as what an early modern viewer would have seen as a life-giving symbol.

Seemingly at odds with the spiritual aspect of his watercolor, Hoefnagel’s portrayal of the almond also speaks to the increasingly scientific view that the early modern people adopted towards almonds.  Hoefnagel emphasizes naturalism and accuracy in this painting.  In his image, the surfaces of natural elements are peeled away to reveal their underlying structure.  Thus, a split almond shell offers a contrast between its rough, corrugated surface and the softer, delicately ribbed fruit inside.  Even the features of the shell’s inside are shown in minute detail, the darker underside flaying open and off the seed.  Likewise, the almond bud is pinkened slightly to allude to a coming bloom beneath the brown and green of the outer layer.  With this focus, Hoefnagel’s work is an exercise in scientific observation.  By capturing all that would be visible of this seed to the naked eye, Hoefnagel’s image points to his audience’s conviction that the almond could be empirically understood.  The early modern people would have read the almond in this watercolor as a representation of the part of the natural world that could be penetrated through observation and rational investigation.

Because the Mira calligraphiae monumenta was a single handwritten book owned by the Holy Roman Emperior, both its medium and its patron limited the audience for this particular image.  However, the work is still telling of the way in which the early modern people understood the almond.  The stories of almonds’ life-giving properties came in comparatively far more disseminated forms:  found in the Bible and classical mythology, the spiritual aspect the almond’s nature would not have been foreign to the early modern conscious.  At the same time, this work was produced not far before the Enlightenment’s mid-17th century start and so points to start of the public’s growing desire to approach the world with reason.  Moreover, Hoefnagel choose to reproduce his almond in two forms, a beautiful flower and an edible seed, on a page of script twofold in its both utilitarian and aesthetic function.  Therefore, Hoefnagel’s work reveals a dualistic understanding of the almond amongst the early modern people, it straddling the realms of spirituality and science.   

Written by Gabriella Costa

[1] Bryant, Barbara, and Betsy Fentress.  Almonds: Recipes, History, Culture. Gibbs Smith, 2014. 19. Print.

[2] Malhotra, S. P. World Edible Nuts Economy. New Delhi: Concept Pub., 2008. 295. Print.

[3] Malhotra, 295

[4] "Almond." Cambridge World History of Food. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Credo Reference. Web. 23 November 2014.

[5] Bryant, 20

[6] Bryant, 25

[7] "Almond." Cambridge World History of Food. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Credo Reference. Web. 23 November 2014.

[8] Albala, Ken. Food in Early Modern Europe. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2003. 55. Print.

[9] "Almond." Cambridge World History of Food. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Credo Reference. Web. 23 November 2014.

[10] Albala, 55

[11] Albala, 55

[12] Hebrews 9:4

[13] Exodus 25:33

[14] Atsma, Aaron. "Plants and Flowers of Greek Myth." Theoi Project. Web. 23 Nov. 2014. <>.

[15] Frazer, James George, and Robert Fraser. "Ch. 34: The Myth and Ritual of Attis." The Golden Bough a Study in Magic and Religion. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1998. Print.

[16] Malhotra, 295

[17] "Mira Calligraphiae Monumenta." The J. Paul Getty Museum. Web. 23 Nov. 2014.

[18] "Mira Calligraphiae Monumenta." The J. Paul Getty Museum. Web. 23 Nov. 2014.