The 'Conversos,' Secret Jews, the Pope and the Inquisition
History of passion flower recounts a story of intrigue as
agents, victims of empire may be linked to Church symbol

By Michael E. Abrams
Copyright 2009

•Also see related article, Hebrew script found on Flemish Sixteenth Century Madonna painting

The passion flower, a remarkable tropical treasure, twists and climbs on its vines across forest and field, offering its sweet fruit and startling beauty.

A Spanish historian in Peru claimed he had discovered the fruit of temptation in the true Garden of Eden. The noted adventurer John Muir, hungry in his thousand mile walk to Florida after the Civil War, refreshed himself with a wild lemon-sized fruit – calling it "the most delicious fruit" he had ever tasted. A Renaissance pope beheld the flower and marvelled.

Since its discovery in the New World by Europeans almost 500 years ago,  the passion flower has not only been noted by its discoverers as a source of food with medicinal properties, but has borne a name symbolic of the "passion of Christ," playing a significant role in Christian iconography and attempts to convert the native American people.
We speculate here on a new story involving the Secret Jews,  conversos, or crypto-Jews who were agents of the empire of exploration and at the same time, victims of its religious intolerance which sought them out for the torture racks of the auto-da-fe.

It's a story that has never been pieced together.

It began when this unusual flower became a symbol of the passion of Christ. From the Pope all the way down to the mendicant friars,  the Church tried to teach the unsaved native Americans that masquerading in the flower was a message of the gospel.

What a tale was spun! 

The religious mind could visualize that in "flos passionis" were three stigma or female parts represented nails of the cross;  five male anthers for the wounds to the body of Christ; coronal filaments resembling the whips of the Roman guards, and the 10 petals and sepals for the disciples, without two who were busy elsewhere.

Lurking between the pages, however, are such secrets as may be born of the terror of death by fire at the hands of the Church.

If we search under the radar, this strange inflorescence owns a little-known niche in Jewish history through association with conversos, the Jews forcibly converted to Christianity, and their descendents, during the Inquisition in Spain.

With implausible irony, a physician-botanist suspected of Jewish origin and another descendent of conversos may have helped bring the flower to the notice of the world and the hands of the pope. The victims of the Inquisition may have become its unwitting agents.

Take a bow here, amorous plants

While no natural symbol is owned by any religion, or should be, the natural world comes to every generation with a thousand religious interpretations.

Miraculous, evil and amorous plants have illuminated Western religion ever since the Garden of Eden story. In Christianity, more than 300 flowers are infused with religious meaning. 

We offer a revolutionary interpretation here, based on a history that is little-plumbed, and on similarities that are striking. The story on this page is stabilized by the historical record.

Did a  Converso botanist, a royal physician to the Spanish king,  provide the first realistic sketch of this symbol of Christianity? Was the chief historian of Mexico, a cleric,  also a Converso?  How are they linked to this flower?

In this intoxicating (to the bees) plant known around the world for its beauty and commercial use, there lurks much more mystery than has been accounted for.

A fruit, a drink, an herbal

We’ve encountered passion fruit from the supermarkets near home in the South, to the breakfast table in Norway. Its sweet, savory pulpy seeds, resembling pomegranate, express their juice in a tart, sweet bouquet. The edible fruit ranges in size from a golfball to a football.

 In Israel the dictionary calls it Pri hashonit, or fruit of the clock, perhaps as its inflorescence resembles the face of a timepiece. But it is purchased in the grocery as “passiflora.”  Japanese also call it the clock flower.

These wild flowers luxuriate in subtropical latitudes, and some hardy species thrive further north. Native Americans grew the "maracock" for food in Virginia amid corn rows.

The Dutch knew it as "maracuia." The Spanish named the flower the “granadilla” or “little pomegranate” and one can trace the etymology of the word through the Latin “granatus” or “seeded” to a Hebrew root word “rimmon” though the smaller fruit never grew in the Middle East.

The “granadilla” sweetens the famous 10 percent juice thirst-quencher (Hey, how about a nice Hawaiian Punch? says the man in the commercial) to health drinks and liquers, to shampoos, to over-the-counter medications in health-food stores.

We recently found our way to the annual conference of the Passiflora Society International at Butterfly World in Coconut Creek, Florida, where a few of the 50 participants only recently emerged from hacking through the jungles and scouting the mountains of South America seeking new species.  We marveled over many new hybrids and gasped at their panoply of colors, their stunning beauty.

Four hundred years ago, the Pope was also amazed.

We searched the Facebook of the Renaissance for the picture of Pope Paul V. He is the prelate who held the flower in his hands four centuries ago.

In a painting by Caravaggio, one notes the fat, dainty, tapered fingers of this son of  the Borghese familia, adorned in an embroidered aib or undervestment of fancy lace. He is matched with red cape and matching red camauro, both lined in ermine.

He is squinty and corpulent as Caravaggio painted him, a patron of the torture rack of the auto –da –fe, challenger  and corrector of both Copernicus and Galileo,  but yet a well-manicured connoisseur of the arts.

Sometime, perhaps 1608, this educated man with a clerical goatee and mustache, marveled as he beheld some sundry dried parts of flowers that some clerics,  sailing back from the New World, had carried to him.

Historian of the passiflora Emil Kugler tells us that four centuries ago today, the drawings of the flower circulated through Europe, and with the pope’s blessing, and the flower became a real reason to believe the gospel was meant as a sign of salvation for the New World. 

The Religious Twitter

By 1620, royal gardeners in Europe were thrilled.

These flowers were sprouting successfully in Spain, France and Italy. Hybridization became possible and in the next two centuries much was printed.

The passiflora (today botanists know of more than 500 wild species)  had survived the trip from the “new golden land.”

In the early years,  the excitement mounted, and with medicinal discoveries from many new plants, large investments were made to finance botanical expeditions.

One Spanish official, Antonio de León Pinela, announced about 1645 that he had found the Garden of Eden at a confluence of rivers in Peru, and said that the fruit was, indeed, the one hanging from the Tree of Knowledge, and that the snake had proferred it to Eve. His public relations effort for the new world, unfortunately, was not published until 1943.

The metaphor for the passion

The "coanenepilli" in native language was probably first depicted in a manuscript in the 1552 Aztec codex Libellus de Medicinalibus Indorum Herbis, though it has been argued in a scholarly journal that the flower was a dahlia.  This drawing, impressionistic, appears not to be a vine, but a small bush, and spoke of medicinal use by the Aztecs.

Linnaeus, the great scholar and father of taxonomy, in 1753, Latinized the Spanish historical name "flos passionis" into “passiflora." His motto was Omnia Mirari Etiam Tritissima –  "find wonder in all things, even the most commonplace."

This flower had been a powerful and useful religious symbol, alongside the bloody red carnation sprouting from Mary’s tears and the white lily carried by the angel Gabriel at the annunciation, where Mary was told of the impending birth of her child.

Enter a second Madonna

Fast forward four centuries. A journalism professor notes an impossibility -- this flower sprouting from a carnation in the hand of the virgin in a Madonna painting ca. 1535 by the Flemish artist Joos van Cleve.

It is highly unlikely that Europeans would have seen the flower 73 years before the pope saw it. The Cincinnati Museum takes it off the wall, puts it under the microscope, and it appears that the flower was added to van Cleve’s  painting perhaps a hundred years later.

It is a credit to the power of this symbol. This was, perhaps, the only passiflora in a Madonna painting of the 16th Century. But symbols can begin to have a life of their own.  Erase the Inquistion and the flower might have taken a different track.

Enter a third Madonna

There are other ways to see this flower, one most obvious.

The purple fringes of several species resemble the threads and strings of the Jewish religious garments, the "tallis" and the "tzitzis." These are worn by observant Jews. The Hebrews were told by Moses to wear a garment with fringes and a blue thread at four corners as a constant reminder of their faith and obligations. 

The Jewish mystics or Kabbalists pose 72 names for God.  It noted that in the 17th Century, a churchman counted 72 frills on a passion flower.

In a Kabbalist interpretation, the three stigma could be –no, not nails for the cross – but "cochma, bina and da’at" – Hebrew words for wisdom, understanding and knowledge – pillars of the mystic writings of the Kabbalah. And the rabbis say, for every star in the skies there is a flower.

And so an essay is written and placed on the Internet.  Our third Madonna appears.  The “world’s most successful female recording artist” is a fanatic for the Kabbalah, and wears a Kabbalistic red thread at performances.  Somehow, the words and pictures from my online essay end up on a Madonna site.

There was no easy way to know who ran this Madonna website, but the first story was no longer like a virgin. The words and pictures appeared on the site, at least until a complaint was filed.

Madonna or whoever ran the site may have spoken more than she knew.

The satanic Jew and the Inquisitors

After the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492 (the monarchs confiscated Jewish property to finance the voyages west) many of the 300,000 Jews remained as ‘conversos.’ Numbers were hauled off to be burned at the stake in a horrifying public ritual, suited to the bloody tastes of the time, as it was discovered they still practiced tenets of their old religion. With the imprimatur of the Church, state-sanctioned murder was the order of the day.

The new Christians, even when sincere, were often despised because of their "Jewish blood."

A typical Church revenge, practiced previously upon thousands in Spain by Isabella's inquisitor Torquemada, was exacted on physican-botanist Garcia de Orta, who had fled from Portugal to Goa on the west coast of India to write his revered works on tropical medicine.

The genus Passifloraceae was named for the Passion of Christ. This species is named Passiflora incarnata.

Seeds with fleshy pulp boast a flavor the world enjoys.

Pope Paul V was shown miraculous plants from the New World by clerics.

Passiflora species appeared in Hernández's 1651 herbal, long after his death. Was this rough drawing shipped by Hernandez back to Phillip II of Spain in 1576? Much of his original work is said to have been destroyed in a fire. 
This species grows in Chiapas in southern Mexico highlands.

Fresco on Augustinian monastery in Malinalco, Mexico.  Bottom left is described as a passion flower, painted by natives being taught Christian ways.

Very likely a professing Jew, his body was exhumed and his bones were incinerated in an auto-da-fe in 1580. This year marked the alliance of Portugal and Spain.

His sister  met the common fate, martyred at Goa by the Portuguese Inquisition.

Thousands of the Sephardim (Spain was called Sefarad in Hebrew) fled to Portugal, and others to North Africa, some to the Ottoman Empire. The Spanish attempt to erase every trace of Judaism came after 1000 years of Jewish contribution to science and philosophy, under both Christian and Islamic rulers. Routes within Spanish culture yet remained for conversos, some of whom became physicians to the ruling monarchs and prelates. Medicine had become a profession over centuries for the Jews. Some conversos were translators and negotiators. Others sailed with the conquistadores. Some even joined the Church, and moved into the hierarchy.

Thousands of conversos remained in Spain, living on the edge. One of these may have been the capable botanist - physician Dr. Francisco Hernández, sent to Mexico by Phillip II to spend the years 1570-78 to catalog the medical plants of the new lands. Hernández was one of the first true trained botanists in the New World.

The late scholar Simon Varey of UCLA, editor of two volumes on Hernández, writes of the age-long rumors that Hernández was a converso.  He was graduate of the medical school at Alcala, 20 miles outside of Madrid, suspected as a haven of conversos. Writes Varey, “The broad community in which Hernández lived and worked, that of Spanish medicine and science, included plenty of men who were functioning under cover.”  A Mexican converso community existed,  and the inquisition followed,  with the first Jew burned at the stake in 1528, almost 40 years before Hernández's arrival. Much information on the Holy Terror in the New World is found in Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean by Edward Kritzler (New York: Anchor Books, 2008).

The physician-naturalist, who worked with artists who painted hundreds of New World plants, may have been the first botanist to sketch the passion flower, but his works were not printed in his lifetime, perhaps on suspicion that he had, after all, Jewish blood. As principal investigator for the king, he shipped 16 illustrated volumes of findings home in 1576 to his sovereign.

These folios and paintings may have been the first to depict the flower to the Europeans.  Some of his work faded, displayed by the king on the palace walls.  Other work was lost in a disastrous fire at the Escorial in 1671, but Hernandez had made a copy of the original manuscript, writes historian Varey.  Drawings of the passion flower appeared in the 1651 edition of an herbal under his name, long after he had died. Could the drawing above be the first lifelike representation, ever, of the flower?

Father Sahagún

Monardes (from imprint)
Among contemporaries living in Mexico was the great Spanish historian and chronicler of the Aztec, Father Bernardino Sahagún, himself, suspected of Jewish origins. Sahagún had a deep interest in things botanical. His original family surname had been “Ribeira,” remaining today a Spanish/Jewish Sephardic name. This portrait of Sahagún is from an old rendering, out of copyright, from a German source in Wikipedia.

The first expositor of the new world medicinal plants in Europe, Dr. Nicolás Bautista (Baptist) Monardes of Seville, was a graduate of the suspect University of Alcala like Hernández. He may have gotten some of his information from Hernández. Monardes never visited the New World, and relied on correspondents.
We can find no portrait of Hernández.

In Mexico we witness a rare representation of the passion flower, four cornered, on a mural at the paradisiacal Augustine monastery at Malinalco, west of Mexico City.  It is pictured above. Hernández and Sahagun may have been visitors to that monastery, writes historian Jeanette Favrot Peterson in The Paradise Gardens of Malinalco.  It is more certain Hernández visited, but it was Sahagún who may have shared his corps of artists with those at the monastery. They also borrowed each other's information in their writings.

A conversation in history

I would like to imagine the pair looking at this stylized, four cornered passion flower painted on the walls of the monastery. “My friend, Bernardino, do you not recognize the the threads, those fringes of the Jews we read about in the Hebrew bible?” asks Hernández. “  And the ten petals those of the commandments handed by the creator of the universe?”

Replies Father Sahagún, “These are things of the past, my friend, long forbidden to speak of. For his royal majesty and our sovereign Phillip, they are heresies. Let us not speak of this any more.”

The Jewish people, to be sure, maintain a strong rabbinical reluctance to paint God  into nature (See Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz in The Thirteen Petalled Rose) -- lest these symbols become objects of worship.  Every Talmud student knows that one is forbidden to let one's eye stray upon a beautiful tree during lessons. 

This aversion to the symbolic remains,  despite the often elegantly illustrated Passover book or Haggadah, the paintings of Chagall, and spectacular Torah mantles dating over centuries. The Jews are no stranger to artistic representation, but far less likely to portray it as a symbol of God. They do not worship at the burning bush.

Nevertheless, the Kabbalists saw the Creator in everything, and one sees the Baal Shem Tov, the father of Chassidism,  wandering among the flowers, dancing and chanting.

Nowhere else have I yet found as intriguing a mystery as the passion flower, its origin, and its representation in religion and art.

Michael E. Abrams, Ph.D.,  teaches journalism at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee.