It should be mentioned that prior to any painting or art form, the palm tree can be seen as possessing noble qualities in the texts written about Eden. In them, the symbolism surrounding this species is an essential component. The palm tree was a symbol of justice from the inception of Christian art, and its image is present in texts that need to express this concept.
One of the first texts that dedicates an inscription to the palm as a symbol of justice, is a treatise in Greek, and known as The Symbolic Garden , a text owned by the Byzantine Empire and thought to be XI century, during the time of the Emperor Constantine Monomaco, who was a great lover of gardens. However, the manuscript copy of the text we know today is post XIII century (1) . The Symbolic Garden is not a treatise on gardening, but rather writing of a mystical nature, that attributes a Christian virtue to each plant, covering twelve plants and twelve virtues. Among these, the palm tree is symbolically associated with justice (2) .
Symbolism inspired by the vegetable world is a feature of the Holy Scriptures (in the words of David: “The just will flourish as the palm Psalms”, 91.13) and was accepted by the Church from its inception, on the condition that the significance attributed to a plant had a clear Christian bias. Naturalistic mosaics in the decoration and relief ornamentation of churches, were permitted by the high-ranking priesthood. The palm tree, always a recognisable configuration, was seen often in many of these decorations. Its presence in the Symbolic Garden can be understood in the context of a civilisation as sophisticated as the Byzantine, whose advanced learning and scientific understanding created an essential link between East and West. It is strange, nonetheless how the palm tree as a symbol of justice can be found in both parts of the world.
Justice is one of the seven virtues of the Church, and recognised from the time of Saint Augustine. A clear, straightforward virtue, without complications or preconceptions, it has the power to elevate man towards heaven. Likewise, the Palm tree shows similar qualities: its trunk is straight and grows to a great height; it is untemperamental and unencumbered by extra branches, its one crowning of branches at the top of the trunk allowing the fruit to fall to the ground, fruit that is long in ripening, as the reward for justice is long in coming to the virtuous.
It is a tree whose two underlying geometric principles give it a perfection of form: the straight line of the trunk, and the circle of branches or fruit. These two mathematical concepts correspond to the tenet of justice: that of faith, with the word and with action: an equilibrium that can be likened to a balance of scales, a metaphor that is applicable to the palm tree.
The tree sometimes has a rough and wrinkled trunk and bears thorns, like justice when dealing out punishment. The palm embodying this virtue cannot lose its foliage, for it would then lose its perfection. If justice needs to drink from the spiritual fountain of the Holy Scriptures, the palm tree needs to spring up near a water course.
Some of these irrelevancies from the Byzantine text could come from an earlier era of mystical-theological discussion, but there is no doubt that the association between palm trees and justice is presented here clearly for the first time. This relationship is confirmed by the palm tree´s subsequent appearance in the religious art then emerging.
It is evident that the inclusion of the palm tree in this earthly paradise where sin was born, and its presence in the story of the expulsion of Adam and Eve, shows a clear link with the text in the Symbolic Garden . It must not be forgotten that for Christians, Paradise had never been anywhere but in the East, usually in Mesopotamia or Persia, places where the planting of palm trees was very prevalent.
Since the beginning of the modern age, there have been paintings that manifest the association between palm tree and paradise.
Among the first examples to come to light, the lovely panel on the altar piece of The Annunciation stands out in its beauty. It was painted by Fra Angelico between 1430 and 1440, and is one of the jewels of the Prado Museum.
The Virgin Mary and the Archangel Gabriel are the two central figures in the panel; the Archangel announcing the news that Mary is to become the mother of the Saviour, is situated in an arcade of columns that leads to a landscape. This landscape, to the left of the picture, is in fact a garden, but the inclusion of an angel and the two figures of Adam and Eve, dressed in fur, are evidence of the expulsion of our first parents from the Garden of Eden.
The garden painted by Fra Angelico has been compared with a “hortus conclusus” similar to a tapestry of fruit and flowers The Annunciation of Cortona, owned by the Diocesano Museum of that city. The theme, once again of the Annunciation is accompanied by a garden which leads to an arcade, a garden which, from far off, reminds us of the prophetic legend of Adam and Eve. However, in this picture the palm tree appears to be closer, and its trunk and branches reach out to us, creating perspective –the great discovery of Renaissance- against the line of columns of the arcade that shelters the angel and Mary.
Another great artist of renown was the painter Heronimo Bosch van Aeken, known as El Bosco, in whose work the Palm tree appears, again as an image that invites reflection on its meaning to the artist. He lived in the century after Fra Angelico, from the late XV century to the early XVI century, and was the favourite painter of the sombre Philip II. El Bosco, together with many of his contemporary artists, conveys a significance that this particular species might portray at the beginning of the modern era in Europe.
We must pay attention to the figures of Adam and Eve, together with God the Father, who are standing next to a strange and exotic tree which fits in perfectly with the unquiet and enigmatic landscape. A landscape that personifies the artist and which El Bosco created in order to give form to Paradise. The bizarre tree depicted, the drago, came from the Canary Islands, and was little-known in Europe at that time, but the artist appears to be very familiar with it. According to a study by Joaquin Yarza, the historian who best interpreted The of Garden of Earthly Delights by El Bosco (4), this tree has acquired a clear distinctiveness and is identified with the Tree of Life.
And the palm tree? El Bosco did not forget the symbolic tree of Paradise; he did indeed invest it with this significance, but stressed the ambiguity which emanates from his compositions.
The palm tree can be seen in the middle distance of the picture, on a rocky headland and alongside a strange lake. A new element appears on its trunk: the serpent, a creature who confers on the palm the allusion of being the Tree of Good and Evil. El Bosco has eliminated its honourable character. Very few historians have paid attention to the botanical element in the landscape of the Flemish painter. We are seeing an excessively flamboyant form of nature, which allows certain details to go unnoticed. However, they are all so surprising, that they are worth studying carefully. Were we to look for this palm tree by El Bosco while visiting the Prado Museum, we would encounter an image that seems altogether different from our idea of Paradise, as we gazed, for example, at the left-hand panel of the triptych entitled The of Garden of Earthly Delights.
We are not, though, enquiring into the botanical knowledge of the most fascinating painters of the XV1 century, neither are we trying to ascertain what they did, in fact, see in their northern European landscapes. Their versions of the palm tree is of that other tree of Paradise, intrinsic to the great legend, and El Bosco knew how to convey the reason for its presence in an ambience charged with symbolism.
Palm trees have been growing in gardens since far-off times, from Hellenic gardens to those of the Renaissance. Arabic gardens, especially in the Iberian peninsula during the Muslim era, surprised the post-mediaeval people from the north, when they happened on them. The palm was an inherent element in a garden of Paradise. This was the observation of visitors who traversed the interior of the Alhambra. Columbus, on his first journey and writing in his diary, described as a garden and a Paradise, the topical landscape of palms and other species that he discovered in the Caribbean. The exportation of palm trees from the New Continent soon developed its own orbit, and praise for the new species gave it theoretical status and acceptance.
As early as 1499, one of the most interesting works about gardening came to light when it was published during the Renaissance. It is commonly known, either as Dream of Polifilo or by its Latin name of Hypnerotoachia Poliphili , a text attributed to the erudite Francesco Colonna , and includes beautiful illustrations by the Venetian printer, Aldo Manuzio.
For the writer of history, it is one of the first Utopian tracts of the Renaissance, and a clear example of the ideals which inspired the garden and the archeology of the XVI century in Europe (5) . It describes the theoretical concept behind an ideal garden, circular in shape and called Citerea, in which the protaganist, Polifilo, travels in search of his beloved, Polia. On this journey, he goes through an endless and oppressive jungle of trees, among them the palm. A tree echoed, too, in some of the exquisite prints by Manuzio.
It is interesting to recall a quotation from this work: Polifilo remembers:
Then…..I found a beach of sand and pebbles, with here and there a few scattered clumps of scrubby grass. A bright palm grove appeared before my eyes, trees whose leaves were pointed and spear-like, so useful to the Egyptians, and with a great abundance of the sweetest fruit. The palms, weighed down with its clusters, were of different sizes: some were small, many were of medium height and others were tall and straight, symbol chosen to represent victory over the prodigious heaviness they had to bear…They were not crowded together, having spaces between each one, and I thought that palms from Archelaida, Faselida and Lybia might not compare to the likes of these. ; (6)
Christianity alotted virtues and allegories inherent in justice and the idea of victory is one of these. But victory over evil is, on the other hand, an idea that has been studied by specialists in ancient iconography, who have revealed how other civilisations of the old world, especially of Egypt, have often depicted in their images the conquerer accompanied by a palm tree, or by one of its branches. And so the palm branch became an insignia for all those who, martyr or saint, deserved victory over evil. Divinely judged as having vanquished the terrible sin that had been laid upon all mankind, the just and the unjust, through a series of pernicious events which took place in the primitive landscape of the Biblical story. The paintings of the Renaissance and of Bosch have served to enrich the numerous examples that have come down to posterity, of martyrs and heroes upheld by palms.
It is evident that the palm tree has been well known in Mediterranean Europe since time immemorial. However, in other areas of Europe where it was unfamiliar or infrequently seen, many painters had to search in botanical works for descriptions, drawings and prints, to help them in their compositions.
These resources were used more and more by artists and have, without doubt, been beneficial in defining the palm tree and making it real. Printers also made their contribution. It is interesting to see this confirmed in one of the images that two Flemish artists, Adrian Collaert (Amberes l560-1618) and Marten de Vos (1532-1603) made for a series which had great repercussions in the history of painting: The Five Senses .
There is an image that is of interest in analysing once more the role that the palm tree plays in Paradise, in which a woman is looking at herself in a mirror, thus depicting one of the five senses, Sight. An eagle accompanies her, a bird of great visual acuity. For specialists in the iconography of this series, the composition of the picture shows a number of innovations, like the inclusion of two Biblical scenes on either side of the feminine allegory (7).
In the middle distance and on the left of the painting, Adam and Eve can be seen, nude, and God the Father at their side is showing them a fruit tree, thus exalting and displaying the importance of the sense of Sight. But also, perhaps, the Creator is alerting them to the prohibition surrounding the apples on this tree. On the other side, but very near to these three figures, is another tree, the palm. In this context, rather than representing an expulsion, it expresses an intimation of divine justice.
The image of the tree, is however, very recognisable and realistic, as are the palms that appear in the panel dedicated to Pleasure, from the same circle of artists. The association of palms with Biblical themes that depict the allegory of a woman surrounded by fruit and delicious food (8) , essential attributes of one of Taste, can also be found in the picture.
To the left of the painting, we can see once again the theme of Eden, the moment where Eve offers an apple to her partner as they stand in the shade of the tree, and in the presence of a woman with a serpent´s tail. Although somewhat distant and concealed, the palm tree´s trunk and some of its branches can be plainly discerned. It is a witness to evil. Two palm trees, however, stand out clearly in another scene which tells the story of the miracle of the loaves and fishes, once again accompanying an image of divine justice; in this case a very different kind of justice.
In the same era in which these Flemish artists worked, other painters were also putting the palm tree into their images, giving scientific importance to this species in a variety of treatments. In fact, if we look at the first texts printed and illustrated on this subject, we can ascertain the weight of tradition and the power of symbolism in certain images, and can verify the tyranny that Christian legends exerted.
Many examples reveal this ambivalence between scientific reality, literary tradition and iconography. Among these, one of the most relevant texts appearedat the end of the XVI century. John Gerard , a botanist, published in London in 1597 a first edition called The Herball or Generall History of Plantes . The definitive version came out in 1633, a milestone and veritable landmark in the history of European gardens. It was at a time when botanical gardens were taking on an epistemological character, and were making their presence felt in European culture (9).
As far as the traditional image of the palm tree is concerned, it is not so much the scientific content of Gerard´s work that captures our interest, as the image on the frontispiece of the definitive edition of 1633, an epoch that introduces us to the Baroque style it goes beyond the harshness of Christianity for, amidst vases and jugs of plants, flowers and fruit, columns and niches, the palm tree accompanies the figures of Ceres (goddess of the Earth and of Agriculture and its crops) and Pomona (goddess of orchards and gardens), ranging from left to right at the top of the picture. Below these goddesses we can see the great figures of antiquity in botany and medicine, Theofhrastus and Dioscorides.
Not the painter but the printer included the iconographic element that interests us: the most valued tree of all stands in a small landscape between twoGreek-Roman goddesses – the palm tree. Iconographic or Christian connotations are minimal in this work, unlike that other great botanical history, the Paradisi in Sole, Paradisus Terrestris . A contemporary of John Gerard, John Parkinson´s publication was of paramount value to European gardens.
The frontispiece of the book might seem ingenuous, but is in fact filled with ancient representations of Eden. It was published in 1629 in accordance with the text by John Parkinson and is, above all, an example of the relationship between botanical science and English gardening in the XVII century. This time, the landscape in the picture shows a variegated pattern of bushes, fruit trees and a profusion of flowers that grow in the place where Adam and Eve are clearly present. A river flows through this lovely glade and, under a symbolic sun, the palm tree stands prominent once again.
It is difficult to imagine how surprising the sight of a palm tree might have been when found in the midst of a European Baroque garden. But it is evident that the botanical world of that era compelled the creators of gardens to sometimes include palm groves. Also at that time, kings and magnates, under the protection of prestigious and numerous expeditions, decided to cultivate a warm climate species, difficult to rear and weighed down by symbolism, but above all exemplifying the promise of a land in which for a brief period, mankind was happy.
Artists, at the same time as scientists, botanists and garden designers, were acquiring a clearer impression of the palm, straight and just, unusual and exotic. As time went on, painters and printers offered more naturalistic and realistic portrayels, but it was not easy for them to disregard the impact of the emblems and symbols inherent in the palm tree.
Among the many symbols relating to the palm is the one where it is seen as the constant presence alongside punishment, but is equally present as the benevolent and beautiful symbol of Paradise. Art throughout the centuries has slowly and gradually let fall its message of justice, the tree´s graceful silhouette reminding us of other allegories and virtues. And it is because the other tree of Paradise evokes myriad unforgettable images, so delightful and enigmatic that it has captivated the creators of legends and the art of the modern world.