Clues to the mystery:
Early passion flower depictions compared to Joos van Cleve's
'Mystery Artist' Madonna;
a 1640s painting by Albert Eckhout;
some interesting history about the early herbals and authors

By Michael E. Abrams


Where did the mystery artist find the model for the passion flower he (or she) put into the 1535 Joos van Cleve painting atop the red carnation?
Why was it added?

The question of source will be more easily answered than motive, which is fodder for the historical imagination.

Was the addition of the flower a task of simple faith? Was it perhaps a concession to fashion or custom? Could it have been an act of courage during religious wars? Perhaps we have a dramatic scenario before our eyes, lost to all but the novelist.

We do know that van Cleve would not have seen such a flower in his lifetime.
(For the original article, click here).

The Flos passionis may have been copied from one of the engravings below. Without a living plant to paint from, the mystery artist would have had to interpret the word-of-mouth descriptions of those who had traveled to the New World. We can say with some confidence that the phantom painter had not seen a real flower – what we see is a stylized, religious analogue. 

The van Cleve passion flower was added from rumor or report, probably before the 1620s.

The physical flower may have been growing in Europe by1580. The Spanish physician Monardes (1493-1588) (Historia medicinal de las cosas que se traen de nuestras Indias Occidentales), who did not provide an illustration, apparently writes that it was growing in Seville, according to Terrada (see below). English translation of his most important work is Joyfull newes out of the newe founde worlde.

An imperative resource is the chapter A Brief History of the Passionflower by Emil Kugler and Leslie A. King in Passiflora: Passionflowers of the World by Torsten Ulmer and John Mochrie MacDougal, published in 2004 by Timber Press.

The flower spread after the first decade of new century when this New World flowers was grown in a garden elsewhere. We know the 'maraco' grew in the garden of Louis XIII in France or that of his master gardener, Jean Robin, as one can see among the illustrations below.

The word 'maraco' or 'murucuia" or something similar hints of widespread use of such a name among native Americans, perhaps in both North and South America, certainly linked to the 'maracock' that Capt. John Smith described in Virginia. Another name, of course, was the Spanish "granada" or "granadilla."

The religious symbolism of the flower was associated with the Church and therefore the potency of such symbolism waxed and waned with the onset of Protestantism and the advent of scientific thought. Herbalists of the Reformation downplayed its religious significance, although the name passiflora was maintained by Linnaeus, the father of taxonomy who sought to reveal "the divine order of God's creation."

Cincinnati museum curator Andy Haslit suggests the example printed by John Parkinson might have been the model. Parkinson apparently obtained the drawing from others. Copying, borrowing and altering woodcuts was customary in those days, and it is difficult, if not impossible, to trace the origins of some of these engravings.

The scholarly work Herbals - Their Origin and Evolution by botanist Agnes Arber (1938, Cambridge University Press) is the standard for understanding what went on in the popular and competitive printing of wonder-filled herbals in the 16th and 17th Centuries.


From van Cleve painting, ca, 1535. This work was temprarily removed from exhibit at the Cincinnati Museum of Art and was examined by curator Andy Haslit who discovered that the passion flower had been painted onto the original much later in time, as we had suggested. 

Photo of original painting was provided to us by the Cincinnati Museum. As one can see, the passionflower sprouts from the carnation held by the Madonna. Although such proliferation of flowers is not unknown in paintings, it was unusual enough to call attention.

The frequent addition of significant flowers and fruit to religious paintings, as well as the 'lamb' in paintings with St. John the Baptist, multiplied the number of stories that could be told in each work of art. The old world fruits of oranges, quinces, cherries, peaches and grapes; and the flowers of carnations and lilies and others, made the story even more delicious to an audience hungry for symbolism. Each plant and animal represented a concept. The sweetness of heaven was in the cherry; the purity of the Madonna in the lily.

Some of the engravings and illustrations clearly show the three stigma (nails) and five stamen (wounds) that were representative to the Church of the crucificion of Christ. The crown of thorns at the top of the flower is a religiously - inspired hyperbole of how the flower actually looks.

The church was eager to show that this strange and miraculous New World, somehow forgotten in the scriptures, was linked in some way to Christianity. How could Christ have existed in this new and golden land? That there was no link would disprove the bible and send theology into a tailspin.

Churchmen were eager to dispute what they thought of as the superstitions of the natives of the Indies.  Here was evidence, in the passion flower, that the message of the crucificion and resurrection was meant for all mankind.

Early painting of several varieties of the new flower was by the Jesuit Daniel Seghers (1590-1661), a pupil of Jan Breughel th Elder, who lived in Rome 1625-7, according to floral botanical authority Sam Segal, who is  cited by Maria Jose Lopez Terrada in an essay Hernandez and Spanish Painting in the Seventeenth Century in  Searching for the Secrets of Nature,  edited by Simon Varey, Rafael Chabron and Dora Weiner, one of two new valuable volumes on Hernandez, published by Stanford University Press, 2000.

Seghers, who later worked in Antwerp, was celebrated for his paintings of religious scenes framed by lavish garlands and wreaths of flowers. We do not yet have a representation of his passion flower for our pages, but are inquiring.

This was an age of was a simple belief in truth. Those who did not have the faith and were not baptized would spend eternity in Hell.  In the twenty-first century, we regard with skepticism much of what is taught in the name of religion. We have grown comfortable in our material world, one governed by scientific thought.

Who will imagine the motive of the mystery artist who painted the passion flower atop the carnation? What were the circumstances that moved his hand four hundred years ago? 

Dominican monk Simone Parlasca's drawing of a passion flower in a pamphlet dated 1609, Bologna. Kugler and King (2004) say that this was probably based on original dried plants. Poems in the pamphlet related the flower to the "Fiore della Granadiglia overo della passione di nostro Signore Giesu Christo." (Courtesy of Leslie A. King).

Eugenio Petrelli depicted this flower in 1610 as a frontispiece in a book by Antonia Possevino, write Kugler and King. This was a form that was widely
 used in pamphlets of the time.  (Courtesy of Leslie A. King)

One of the most dazzling collections of historical and 'miraculous' science was Johann Zahn's compendium

Reports of exotic and fantastic creations could be seen as proof of the veracity of religious text and God's work on earth in the 17th Century, even as they are in some religious quarters today. Johann Zahn (1631- 1707) a canon of the Church in Wurzburg, was also a scientist  - an inventor of the camera obscura - which let artists trace three dimensions on two-dimensional board. He was a connoisseur of the occult. Torn between the science of the times and the holy, he set on paper a mammoth survey of the world in Speculae - Physico- Mathematico - Historicae . . .  (1696). Along with celestial diagrams from the new sciences and the telescope, he added bizarre drawings of sea dragons and mermen, based on reported sightings. His book was a cabinet of wonders and speculation - but who would deny them in an age when witches allegedly metaposed into cats, alchemists claimed to transform lead to gold, and geese hatched from seashells. Citing Monardes, the great physician - botanist who had heard reports of the 'flos passionis' and wrote about it in the 1570s, Zahn realized it had been found in Brazil and Peru, and even Virginia. It grew in Europe by 1623, years before he was born. He chose to represent it as a miracle. Here was Christ's passion, the three spikes for the stigma, the crown of thorns, the column to which Christ had been tied. See the similar Parkinson drawing below. Parkinson got his woodcut or engraving from the Jesuits. Other plants were found. Someone imagined the crucifixion in the root or stem of the plant at right, perhaps a radish. The religious imagination was at work in the field of botany for centuries, and Christianity pushed the metaphor. Stories of such finds make the news today.

Credit the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Library in Silver Spring, Maryland - and its invaluable online photographic documentation program - for this picture from the rare Zahn book. We thank Skip Theberge, reference librarian, for finding the Latin explanation. The NOAA library is a valuable resource of color pictures of nature, news and NOAA history, with some attention to natural disasters.  NOAA pages are located here.


Giacomo Bosio's version from 1610 has
crown of thorns, leaves that are not
accurate. Bosio, an ecclesiastic and historian
wrote that the Spanish called the flower
"La Flor de las cinco Llagas" or the
'The Flower With The Five Wounds.'
(Courtesy Mauro Serricchio).


From John Parkinson in 1629 Herball presenting
earlier Jesuit drawing, innacurate leafs, and "crown
of thorns." Somewhat like the drawing in Bosio. This also is a suspect for the van Cleve mystery artist's version. (Florida State University Library)

From 'ancient print'

From Hone's Every-Day Book (1825-1826). Hone
says it is "from an ancient print" and it does have
the Jesuits' crown of thorns. By 1825, real passion
flowers were grown in many places in England and hybrids were noted by him. The picture looks as
if it must have originated in the early 1600s.
/edb/introduction.html (University of Alabama
at Birmingham, Kyle Grimes)


From John Parkinson,  representing flower as it
occured in gardents, in Great Britain, in 1629. 
One of the early true representations, probably Passiflora incarnata. (Florida State University


From Gerard's Herball, 1636 in Great Britain, probably Passiflora incarnata. His first edition of 1595 did not mention this flower.  (Florida State University Library)


Francisco Hernandez, Rerum Medicarum,
Novae Hispaniae, 1651 (Florida State
University Special Collections)

Hernandez botanized Mexico

Hernandez, ibid. A court physician to the Spanish king, he traveled for seven years in the New World from 1571-1577 on orders of Philip II to catalog medicinal herbs, according to an entry in Wikipedia. This book was published in Mexico in 1615, and another edition followed in 1648 from Rome. These were published after his death in 1587. Two recent books on Hernandez are reviewed  by Donna  Bleichmar in the journal Medical History. These publications are The Mexican treasury: the writings of Dr Francisco Hernández  edited by Simon Varey, Stanford University Press (2000), and a companion volume by Varey and others,  Searching for the secrets of nature: the life and works of Dr Francisco Hernández. They are the first English translations.
Writes Bleichmar:  Over these six years Hernández visited the major hospitals, interviewed numerous European and Amerindian informers, cared for victims of epidemic diseases, and compiled descriptions of thousands of plants and hundreds of animals and minerals. The original manuscript of Hernández's Natural history of New Spain—six folio volumes of text and ten containing illustrations of plants and animals—was the most complete repository of first-hand knowledge on New World materia medica at the time. It provided information on Amerindian medical knowledge, which was rapidly disappearing due to death and conversion, and also described plants that held enticing medical and commercial promise for Europeans.

Image of 'Maraco Indica' in France

From Pierre Vallet's book Le jardin du Roy tres chrestien Loys XIII published in 1623,  image courtesy Missouri Botanical Garden. This book displays engravings of flowers grown in the gardens of both Louis XIII of France, and his royal gardener Jean Robin. The 1623 version has 20 more engravings than the 1608 edition. The flower appeared in the garden between editions. We are grateful for assistance by L. Anathea Brooks of UNESCO who was able to access the recent republication of the 1608  edition,  Le jardin du Roy tres chrestien Henry IV Roy de France et de Navare dedie a la royne at the Librairie des Jardins in the Tulleries Garden.

An English translation of the 1623 French description, courtesy of Suzanne Levin of Palo Alto, California, is as follows:

 All its great filaments as far as the first circle are [part] of a fine columbine: the circle of carmine, the middle circle of yellow, the next circle in the first [color], the next circle of a fine yellow, the two smallest circles red like the outer ones with a bit of yellow, the five stamens of a slightly greenish yellow with red insides; the three sorts of nails like the stamens, the column-like heart, and the little green knob, which supports all the filaments are green.

Early North American Illustration

From the book The natural history of the rarer lepidopterous Insects of Georgia including their systematic characters, the particulars of their several metamorphoses, and the plants on which they feed, collected from the observation of Mr. John Abbot, many years resident in that country. By James Edward Smith.  Published 1797. 

This shows the Passiflora incarnata which we have photographed many times, along with the gulf fritillary butterfly at the top. We are not sure of the identification of the butterfly or moth at the bottom of the picture. This species of passion flower is the hardiest and grows up into the eastern seaboard.  It was first mentioned by Capt. John Smith of Virginia who spoke of how the flower was grown for food by the Indians.

The fruit was called the 'maracock.'  Archaeological evidence exists of widespread use of the fruit in native diets. One such site is the San Luis mission in Tallahassee where such finds have been catalogued through numbers of seeds found analyzing the earthen floors of habitations. The fruit is still plentiful in areas around Lake Jackson, where pre-Spanish Indian mounds are protected in a state site.

 Image courtesy Missouri Botanical Garden.

Historia Naturalis Brasiliae 1648

Frontispiece from the famous 1648 Historia Naturalis Brasiliae by the Dutchmen Willem Piso,  Joannes de Laet, Georg Marggraf - who were also associated with Dutch artists French Post and Albert Eckhout in Brasil.  Written in Latin, digitized by Missouri Botanical Garden, brightened a little in Photoshop.  Illustrations of Passiflora from this book are at the right. It is surely possible that Eckhout or Post painted the original for the frontispiece.  The Governor of Dutch Brasil, Johan Moritz, had invited eight scientists and artists to the new land, including Post and Eckhout.  Pictures of "murucuia" are to the right, but the Dutchmen recognized the Hispanic "Granadilla"  and the vulgo "flos Passionis." To the right are three llustrations from the book, courtesy of the Missouri Botanical Garden.
"Murucuia" depicted in Historia

Above is called Murucuia guacu
by the Dutch. Top Left is called Murucuia maliformis,  bottom Murucuia maliformis alia.

Albert Eckhout    ca.1641

Early European Painting

One of the earliest European paintings that included the passionflower was a work by Albert Eckhout. It was a still-life painted during or after his trip to Brazil, probably 1641-43. The Dutch painter's 12 still-lifes and eight ethnographic portraits of racial blendings in Brazil are among his famous works.

Information about Eckhout and his other paintings can be found in Edward J. Sullivan's wonderful new book The Language of Objects in the Art of the Americas (2007, Yale University Press). It's certainly among the best interpretations of art related to the new world. Another highly recommended book is The New Golden Land: European Images of America from the Discoveries to the Present Time by Hugh Honour (1975, New York, Pantheon Books).

Requests were made to use a slide of this painting from Nationalmuseet, Copenhagen, The National Museum of Denmark, Ethnographic Collection. Although we haven't the privilege of hearing from them after several weeks, we believe the copyright on paintings of the masters has long expired, at any rate.  We would like to visit this museum some day, one of the famous repositories of information about the New World.  It's high on our list.

The large flower in the painting appears to be Passiflora edulis flavicarpa, according to Myles Irvine, of the Passiflora Society International, with the yellow split fruit up front and possibly the greenish-yellow whole pear-shaped fruit in the foreground. If it is the fruit, it is more rounded these days, he observes, possibly changing in breeding during the 400 years since. Numbers of style and stamen are sometimes variable in passiflora according to Irvine, as the typical three stigma and five stamen are not quite distinguishable by number and location in the painting. Irvine's valuable and comprehensive website is at

Philip Reinagle (late 1700s)

The Blue Passion Flower

From an original by artist Philip Reinagle, published in one of the
first and finest great illustrated flora,  Temple of Flora,  by Dr. Robert
John Thornton (1768-1837). Thornton was a medical doctor whose
passion for botanical publishing led him to great undertakings such
as this work, part one of which was called A New Illustration of the
Sexual System of Carolus von Linnaeus
. He hired engravers to
reproduce the original paintings of noted artists in Britain. The
original plates are now preserved at the Royal Botanic Gardens
at Kew. 

This page was reproduced from the 1799 London volume
Picturesque Botanical Plates of the New Illustration of the
Sexual System of Linnaeus
and it is printed here courtesy
of Heritage Collection, State Library of New South Wales.