What Do Cherries Mean in Literature and Art?

When you think of cherries, you probably think of their bright colour, sweet and luscious flavour, and frequent inclusion in desserts. However, cherry have played a vital role in art and literature for ages, particularly in terms of symbolism.

Of course, the symbolism of cherries differs based on the work in which they occur. Much of the variety is due to the time period in which the piece was created. Are you interested in learning more about the meaning of cherries? Below, we’ll look at the symbolism of cherries throughout art and literature.

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Cherries’ History

Sweet cherries as we know them now originated in Asia, in the fertile lands between the Caspian and Black Seas. The history of plants by Greek philosopher Theophrastus, who flourished from 371 to 287 BCE, has the oldest recorded reference to cherries. The exact route cherry took from Asia Minor to Europe is unknown, but it is widely assumed that birds brought them across the continents.

In the 1600s, early colonists introduced cherries to America via ship. Cherry popularity has grown throughout the years, with everyone from Roman invaders to Chinese nobles, from working-class immigrants to amateur and professional chefs appreciating and embracing the fruit.

Cherries have a symbolic meaning.

Have you ever wondered, “What do cherries represent?” If so, you might be shocked to learn that the answer differs significantly depending on the historical period in question. Cherries, for example, were regarded as sacred in mediaeval art and literature. The expectant Virgin Mary and Joseph journey to Bethlehem for the census in “The Cherry-Tree Carol,” a Christmas ballad recorded as early as the fifteenth century. They pause to rest in a cherry orchard along the road, and Mary requests that Joseph pick cherries for her to consume and nurture the pregnant child.

Joseph informs her angrily that the cherries should be picked by the child’s father, not him. While still in Mary’s womb, Jesus speaks to the cherry tree, instructing it to lower one of its branches so Mary can choose from it. Joseph regrets his enraged comments when the branch does really lower.

Wakefield Master’s The Shepherd’s Play, written in the fifteenth century, is another example of cherries as a spiritual symbol. When the poor shepherds pay a visit to Mary and the Christ Child in the stable, they bring meagre gifts because that’s all they have. The first shepherd offers a bunch of cherries to Mary and Jesus. The cherry is a modest — but acceptable — replacement for treasure in this regard.

Furthermore, Sir Cleges, a mediaeval chivalric romance, relates the story of an impoverished knight who prays beneath a tree for fortune for himself and his family. The tree is covered in cherries when he looks up – a miracle. This bodes well for the future. He and his son deliver the cherries to the monarch, who lavishes them with wealth and resources in return for this wonderful gift.

Cherries gained a more secular significance over time, becoming connected with sensuality. Writers described cherry as ripe, plump, and ready to burst, all euphemisms for the erotic, particularly in relation to virginity and male anatomy. “My cherry lips have often kissed thy stones,” Thisbe declares in William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. According to some academics, the “stones” in this line relate to testicles.

Josuah Sylvester and Robert Herrick, seventeenth-century English lyric poets, relate cherries to nipples and breasts. English poet Charles Cotton compares a maiden’s pubic hair to black cherries during this time period, while author John Garfield alludes to sex as “playing at the Bobb-Cherry.” Michel Millot and Jean L’Ange likened the tip of a man’s appendage to a cherry in their sensual novel The School of Venus (1655).

The sensual meaning of cherries became even more obvious as time went. The first modern reference to the cherry as a symbol for the hymen was in 1889, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The origins of virgins “dropping” their hymen — a.k.a. their “cherry” — can be traced back to the early years of the twentieth century, when it became common parlance.

Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita; Jeanette Winterson’s Sexing the Cherry; and songs like Warrant’s “Cherry Pie,” ZZ Top’s “Cherry Red,” Neil Diamond’s “Cherry Cherry,” The Runaways’ “Cherry Bomb,” and Beyoncé’s “Blow” all feature cherry symbolism.

Cherries Have a Spiritual Meaning

The miraculous and supernatural are central to the spiritual significance of cherries in Christian scriptures. The fruit frequently grows or appears in unexpected places, serving as proof of God’s majesty and splendour. The spiritual meaning is that with God, anything is possible, as demonstrated by a cherry tree bending to allow its fruit to be gathered.

Furthermore, cherry have long been associated with the spiritual principles of life, death, and rebirth in Japanese culture. When given as a gift, this gives them a unique meaning. To thank Kamikaze pilots for their actions during WWII, the Japanese presented them with cherry blossoms. Japan has also sent cherry trees as a symbol of friendship and togetherness to the United States to recognise their connection.

Symbolism of Cherries in Art

Cherries can be seen in a variety of works of art, including paintings and embroidery. They usually symbolise good luck, celestial wealth, and paradise’s fruit. They are the focal centre of the entire painting in certain cases. Others drop subtly from a subject’s hand or, as in a famous Elizabeth I painting, from the ears.

Cherries appear in a number of renowned paintings, including François Boucher’s The Cherry Gatherers, Émile Vernon’s Girl Under the Cherry Blossoms, Tiziano Vecelli’s Madonna with Cherries, Virginia Granberry’s Cherries, and Edouard Manet’s The Boy with Cherries.

In art and literature, the connotation of cherries ranges from lofty and magnificent to sexual and religious. To comprehend what cherries represent, you must consider the context of the work and the time period in which it was created. Regardless of the setting, it’s evident that cherries are ripe with significance.

Misha Khatri
Misha Khatri is an emeritus professor in the University of Notre Dame's Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. He graduated from Northern Illinois University with a BSc in Chemistry and Mathematics and a PhD in Physical Analytical Chemistry from the University of Utah.

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