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Still-life with Quince, Cabbage, Melon and Cucumber (Juan Sánchez Cotán, ca. 1600, oil on canvas)

Still-life with Quince, Cabbage, Melon and Cucumber (Juan Sánchez Cotán, ca. 1600, oil on canvas)

Juan Sánchez Cotán (1560 A.D. – 1627 A.D.) was a Spanish painter who had a successful career painting altarpieces,  religious works, portraits, and still lifes for the elite art patrons of Toledo.  At the age of 43 he closed up his studio, renounced the world, and entered the great Carthusian monastery of Santa María de El Paular as a monk.   In his final years of painting as an independent artist–just before he left for the cloister in 1603–he mastered a highly realistic style of small ascetic still life paintings called bodegones.    The subjects of these paintings were generally fruit and vegetables, although sometimes a gamebird or ceramic object is included.   The composition is spare to the point of minimalism: setting is reduced to a few matte black angles.  The dramatically lit fruits and vegetables cast deep ominous shadows.  Although the hacked up melon takes pride of place, the quince and cabbage hang dramatically in the middle suspended from twine.  There is an enigmatic and mannered intensity to these works–as though the humble comestibles have become protagonists in a great tragic play or a melancholic opera.  Yet the drama remains elusive and we are left with a tight realistic painting.  Perhaps we will never know why the ornate cabbage seems so downcast despite its flamboyant leaves, or why the cucumber is a nosy outsider, or how the quince seems to be flying away to grace.   Despite the objectively rendered precision of the painting, the beautiful produce of Cotán’s little still life jealously keeps its own secret meaning.

A Quince Tree with Ripe Quinces

The quince (Cydonia oblonga) is a flowering tree of the rose family which bears an edible golden fruit. Quinces are rare in America due to their susceptibility to fireblight disease (a bacterial infection caused by Erwinia amylovora).  Because the fruit are unusual here and because, without cooking or other treatment, they are very sour and bitter, quinces are regarded as a sort of poor relation to apples and pears (both of which are indeed very close relations within the rose family), but probably it should be the other way around.  Not only does the quince occupy an exalted place in literature and the arts, but the tree is believed to hold a treasure trove of medically useful compounds in its leaves, bark, and fruit.


Quince trees are small trees which, in spring, bear many large single blossoms of bright pink. The flowers are hermaphrodites, able to fertilize themselves.  When fertilized the blossoms develop into chartreuse-colored pubescent fruit which then further ripen into a bright golden yellow in autumn (when also the tiny fuzzy hairs fall off).  The knobbly pear-like fruit are exceptionally tart but become sweet if treated with salt, bletted (left on the tree to decompose slightly), or cooked. The quince is exceptional for baking, for making sweet wines and liquors, and for jams and sauces.  Additionally quinces have long been a feature of traditional medicine and a host of recent studiessuggest that different parts of the plant might have a number of therapeutic properties including lipid lowering effects, antidiabetic activity, and antiallergic properties among others (in addition to being a healthy nutrition and fiber source).

Detail of Eve (Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1528)

The quince originated in the Caucasus region between the Caspian and the Black Sea (a region where wild quince trees can still be found). Cultivation of the little tree began in Mesopotamia, between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers.  If that sounds like a familiar location, it should, for it was there that human hands created the first cities.  From the cradle of civilization, the quince spread to the Levant and the Mediterranean long before the apple or the pear.  For this reason the fruit is a favorite candidate (along with the fig) as the forbidden fruit of Genesis.  Additionally, anytime an apple appears in ancient Greek literature or myth, it can reasonably be assumed to be a quince–which means the infamous golden apple of Eriswhich caused the Trojan War was actually a golden quince.   Indeed quinces are gold colored and have been a traditional feature of classical Greek nuptial ceremonies since records exist.  The quince lingered on as a symbol of Aphrodite and is one of the trees sacred to the love goddess.  A number of fertility myths and superstitions remain attached to the quince in the Balkans and in Turkey.

Quinces and Medlars on a Table Ledge (Jan Jansz van de Velde, mid 17th Century)

Beyond the Mediterranean world, the quince has an active artistic life as well.  The knobby glowing fruits have been a source of inspiration to artists for a long time, but perhaps they are even more celebrated in literature.  Peter Quince is the rustic craftsman and playwright from William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Wallace Stevens later borrowed the character to narrate Peter Quince at the Clavier, an examination of desire, music, and thought. Tennyson, Browning, and Keats all alluded to the fruit or flowers of the quince which feature frequently in Victorian poesy. In fact The golden fruits are the second fruit mentioned in the poem The Goblin Market (which must surely rank as the greatest fruit-themed poem ever written). Finally, the fruit features prominently in The Owl and the Pussycat by Edward Lear, a work of literature familiar to everyone which surely deserves mention here, involving as it does farm animals, mammals, a turkey, and the moon which was (and remains) in outer space.

‘Dear pig, are you willing to sell for one shilling
Your ring?’ Said the Piggy, ‘I will.’
So they took it away, and were married next day
By the Turkey who lives on the hill.
They dined on mince, and slices of quince,
Which they ate with a runcible spoon;
And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand,
They danced by the light of the moon,
The moon,
The moon,
They danced by the light of the moon.

Detail of Two Quinces (Eliot Hodgkin, 1951)

 

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