More sexy fruit : The penis tree and the medieval nun

Maybe you’ve already read my article Sexy fruit from Renaissance Italy and seen the picture of a young woman putting a special kind of « fruit » in her basket. I saw this surprising scene on a Renaissance plate in the Louvre in Paris when strolling around the museum. Back home, I started researching the iconography of the scene and particularly looked into italian albarelli, Renaissance pharmaceutical jars. Unfortunately, I wasn’t rewarded with much useful information and quite frustrated, when mere chance gave my research a new twist. Sitting on my couch, I went through a history magazine when this caught my eye :

Drôlerie marginale : nonne faisant la cueillette dans un arbre

A nun plucking penises from a penis tree. ‘The Romance of the rose’, 14th century manuscript (detail), FR 25526 © Bnf, Paris

In the lower left corner of the manuscript page, a nun wearing a brown frock and black veil (a member of the newly founded Order of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, or of the Franciscan Order of St. Claire ?), holds a green basket in her left hand and reaches out for a tree, on which hugh penises are growing. The motif on the mentioned Renaissance plate is very similar, only the tree is missing. The medieval picture here is not of a young women of the world, but of a nun who vowed chastity. The illuminations of the manuscript were made by Jeanne or Richard de Montbaston (Jeanne de Montbaston being also the blog name of medievalist Lucy Allen), for the 14th century poem Romance of the Rose, a medieval love handbook by french poet Jean de Meun. Jean de Meun wrote a long sequel to Guillaume de Lorris‘ Roman de la Rose, begun in 1237 but never achieved.

Did this satirical (?) medieval picture from the Romance of the Rose manuscript travel onto an italian albarello, and later onto an earthenware plate? Are there more of these pictures out there, and on what kind of medium? Just now, I don’t have any answer to these questions, but what the male « fruit » plucking picture shows is an unbroken transmission of penis images from the earliest days of Antiquity right down to Early Modern decorations (and of course right down to contemporary images of the same kind). I suppose that at the end of the 16th century, with the growing influence of Protestantism, seemingly indecent or pornographic pictures like these were removed and hidden away in closed areas of private spaces and libraries like the BnF, the National Library of France, where the room with licentious books is called « L’Enfer » (hell). In 2007-2008, the Bnf held the very first exposition of these scandalous books and images kept in « Hell » : « L’enfer de la Bibliothèque. Eros au secret« .

Anyway, medieval people and people from the Renaissance were definitively more relaxed, openly showing – and maybe mocking – female « weakness » with explicite pictures, instead of hiding them away in Hell.

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