from explorers of the New World, van Cleve, who died ca. 1540, could
not have painted the
flower. Reason: it first appeared in drawings in Europe about 70 years
anomaly in the van Cleve painting in the summer of 2006 while writing
an essay on the
symbolism of the
flower and the Kabbalah.
flowers many times in Florida, where I am a
journalism professor at Florida A&M University. I was
researching the history of the flower in religious art, when
happenstance led me to the van Cleve painting.
I realized it could not have been painted in the 1530s
with the red passion flower in it. How the flower got into the painting
is a mystery.
The verdict by museum officials is that
the painting was enhanced perhaps 70 to 150 years after it was sold by
has happened may not change the history of the difffusion of knowledge
about the passion flower in Europe, but it may alter forever what
critics and viewers say and know about the painting: it comes with a
The mystery was buried in history
van Cleve, who lived from approximately 1485 to 1541, died 70
he could have
seen the flower. As it is, the flower is still apparently painted from
by the mystery artist who
altered the van Cleve.
If the passion flower were truly van Cleve's,
it might have
have caused historians to rethink
story of the spread of religious iconography in Western Europe during
It would revise history to think that
van Cleve, who lived in
Antwerp, had specific knowledge of this
new flower which was discovered in the New World perhaps a few years
previous to his death. A
few, if any, of the clerics who may have returned to Spain from the
depradations of Cortez and others, would have been
able to describe the nature of its potent religious symbolism.
The painting, up until today, was either
a clever deception, or a work so unique in its time as to stand alone
among thousands of paintings of Madonna and Child by the great
artists of the world. A companion painting, almost a
cookie-cutter, can be found in the Nelson-Atkins Museum of
Art in Kansas City,
Missouri. It contains everything but the passion flower. Another
such painting is held by a museum in France.
The Cincinnati Art Museum painting looks
very much like a deception at this point.
"We looked at the painting briefly under a
microscope and the findings more or less confirm my scenario where the
flower was painted by a later hand," said Andy Haslit, a curator at the
time we discovered the passion flower. The painting has resided at the
museum since 1981.
"We found that the black background was painted around the
carnation, where the passion flower was painted right on top of the
black, thus indicating that it was done later."
"Also, the modeling of the paint (i.e. the way that the artists
built up a volumetric representation of their respective flowers) is
entirely different," he observed. "The carnation has a layer of
dark pink paint under a layer of lighter pink, giving it volume and
shading, while the passion flower is done in simple red with no shading
or modeling. "
"All of this means that the passion flower was a
later addition by a different hand. We also can tell that it wasn't too
much later, because there are cracks that run continuously through the
background and the passion flower. "
"These cracks would have formed somewhere around 100
years after the painting was first made (with a wide standard deviation
that depends on humidity, lighting conditions, etc. etc. - it could be
70 years, it could be 150."
Why would a mystery artist have added a passion flower?
To understand what we can about the flower and why
someone might have added another holy symbol to a
religious painting, perhaps we must first consider the vested interest
the Church in the prospect of saving souls through the story of the
passion of Christ.
For the illiterate millions, symbols were necessary,
and the Church was about symbols, from the cross to
the rosary to the icons in the cathedrals.
Rome also sought proof of
the veracity of its faith through the works of nature. Floral
understanding the history of painting.
Violets, for example, represented humility. The
passion flower, along with pure white lilies and blood red carnations,
became symbols for the purity of faith, the tears of the Virgin Mary,
The passion flower represents the passion story, the story of
the shape of these essential parts of the flower.
The three stigma or female
parts, spill from the top of the flower, and represented to the
Holy Roman Church the very nails of the cross. They also may represent
the Trinity. The five circular and
recumbent male anthers spoke of the five terrible wounds suffered by
dainty fringes of
the corona of the flower were bloody lashes of the Roman scourge, meant
the death of the man condemned to die on the cross. The 5 sepals and
represent the 10 disciples who
witnessed the crucifixion, minus Thomas and Judas, who were elsewhere.
The Moche, the Aztecs
The earliest depiction of a passionflower we can
find is from the mysterious Moche culture of
northern Peru. The civilization is estimated to have flourished from
100 C.E. to 800 C.E. It is a ceramic jug handle depicting the fruit of
the banana passion flower,
Century C.E. and is found at the Museo
Larco in Lima.
The passion flower was first called Flos
Passionis by the awestricken (and quite inventive) friars who
found it in Mexico, Peru and perhaps Florida. Varieties of the
beautiful vine have an
aromatic fruit – called the granadilla
South America and the maypop
A religious poet
at the end of the sixteenth century wrote of the flower as proving to
the new native American
believers "the torture of God." An abundant summer bloomer in the
New World, the flower encompasses hundreds of species from Peru
The flower may have
actually appeared in the 1552 Aztec
Codex Badianus, which was kept from view for 400 years. The
illustration, however, may have been of a dahlia rather than a
flower blooms today on its clasping
this hot sticky summer across Mexico and the eastern United States. Its
pungent, tart fruit will be grown from Australia to Hawaii to much of
Latin America, sold in markets and groceries, and processed for juices
such as Hawaiian Punch.
The riddle was framed by
"I find this seventeenth-century addition scenario to be the
most plausible," said Haslit.
"Also, I see no reason at all to think that
this painting is not by van Cleve, and neither do the van Cleve people
that I've read. What we now know is that the passion flower part only
is not by van Cleve."
It is most probable to this writer that the flower would have
been added before 1620. That's when the rumors of its miraculous
existence were supplanted by the real flowers, having been grown in
gardens of botanists in Europe.
of the discovery of the passion flower in "New Spain" compelled
Jesuit missionaries in 1608 to bring a color drawing and dried plants
from the New World to the powerful Pope Paul V, the same pope who
presided over the trial of Galileo in an age where churchmen burned
witches and heretics.
physician and herbalist Nicolas Monardes, writing
about 1570 and revising later,
described the flower's herbal powers and its supposed relationship with
Crucifixion. He had never visited the New World, and relied on
from those who had traveled there, perhaps someone who had traversed
the ocean in the bloody and
remunerative voyages of conquest of Cortez in the 1520s.
However, Monardes, who used woodcuts of other
flowers in this 1570s- 80s book, included no drawing of the
flower. Monardes writes that it was being grown in Seville (see
page of Clues). However, we have
no evidence that the New World explorers brought an illustration of the
flower, other than the stylized Aztec codex (1552)
back to Spain before the early seventeenth century. And that codex was
A. King in Passiflora:
the World (Ulmer and MacDougal, Timber Press,
2004) write that sheets of drawings
of passionflowers, similar to church scholar Giacomo Bosio's depiction
in 1610, were printed in
Germany and Italy in the later 1600s. Based
on rumor. he
placed a false crown of thorns
at the top,
quite similar to the suspect depiction in the van Cleve painting.
These, the authors state, "were the first representations of the
appear in Europe."
Kugler wrote that he
considers it "extremely unlikely, that about 1530 a Flemish painter -
who never visited America- derived the symbols of his own accord and
depicted them in one of his paintings."
"A precise analysis of the part of the painting in
produce signs of a later supplementation, which I consider
such an earlier drawing.
Joos van Cleve would probably have looked in vain
for a drawing of the passion flower.
Indeed, such a
flower is not found in the first editions of the Herballs of the
Flemish physician Carolus Clusius, in 1601, or of the British John
Gerard in 1597, two of the pioneers of such illustration, well after it
was mentioned by Monardes.
The first flowers to resemble nature's
somewhat later. By 1614 French botanist Jean Robin had grown
passionflowers in his garden and engravings show very accurately the Passiflora incarnata, write Kugler
and King. The British herbalist John Parkinson in 1629 included a
realistic drawing as well as a fanciful Jesuit sketch.
book to the Queen, herself a gardener and certainly a Protestant,
Parkinson took pains to debunk the clerical representation of the
flower. Parkinson knew it to exist in Virginia and called it the Virginia Climer. By that
time, the flower had
been planted in gardens in Paris and London, say King and Kugler.
The first known painting
of the flower by a European
artist occurred about 1625 when the Jesuit Daniel Seghers added it to a
garland of flowers embracing a cartouche of angels. This painting hangs
in the Louvre. Sam Segal, an authority in the world of painting
botany, pointed us to the work.
But no one, including John
vanderplank, author of the
lavish Passion Flowers
drawing in the
1500s from which van Cleve might have worked, even if he knew about
such a flower.
"The early drawings have always fascinated me," wrote John
vanderplank, who is probably the foremost botanical authority on the
The spear shaped leaves in some of the early drawings,
and black dots on these drawings (30 of them representing the infamous
30 pieces of silver) were probably because those who drew the pictures
never really saw the living plant, he says.
"All they had was a wonderful story and dried flower (herbarium
specimen) and if you look at herbarium specimens they are often spotted
with fungus and the position of the stamens (wounds) is
compressed onto the corona filaments instead of being just below the
ovary, just as in your painting," writes vanderplank.
He said that some years ago "a lady from some
university in the USA" sent him some photographs of engravings on an
antique Mexican "salva and bowl" possibly from the 1500s, and
said she was going to publish an article, but never did, he said.
These may have been early representations of the passion flower.
And so, based on physical
as well as historical
evidence that can be established in the year 2006, the passion flower in Madonna
and Child by
Renaissance artist Joos van Cleve is a deception.
Transported to the New
World by the Devil
In Mexico and South
America, after Columbus's voyage
in 1492, priests who traveled with Cortez and others were apparently
using the newfound
miracle flower to attempt to persuade the native peoples of the majesty
It quickly assumed mystical powers. The flower, a poet
present at the crucifixion, and was transported by the jealous devil to
the New World.
Perhaps the flower was used
time to save some of the "Occidental Indians" from the fires of
Maybe it worked for some.
The bloody, merciless destruction of
these ancient Indian societies by
conquistadores is seared into history. It was retold by William H.
Prescott in the
classic The History of the Conquest
An eyewitness to the slaughter was Bartolome de las Casas in A Short Account of the Destruction of the
What accounts there were
sometimes reached the ears of sympathizers, and the Church asked that
the Indians be treated as human beings capable of seeking salvation.
But this message was not heard by those who wished to exploit this new
In Europe, the cathedrals drew the population to
The Church was increasing its wealth through sales of indulgences.
Religious people, and perhaps the new
middle class, were the customers for paintings of the Madonna and
Perhaps he world has not changed much, as we
hear of starvation and tragedy in our world, and see it on television,
yet often feel powerless to do anything. It may be that the Devil
is still lurking.
Suspicions were reinforced
A curator of special collections at the University
of Wisconsin in Madison and an art historian who directs
Princeton's Christian iconography collection could find no illustration
of this flower in early church
iconography in the 16th Century. The writer could find no Madonna and
Child with a passion flower -- except for van Cleve's purported flower
--in a search of
hundreds in the 16th Century.
If it were genuine, botanical and Church history
would had to have been
As in other Madonna and Child paintings, the
iconography is there. The beautiful child-man with orange curls is
holding ripe cherries, a fixture in van Cleve paintings and symbol of
resurrection and possible paradise. The Christ child's eyes focus
upon a blood-red carnation with leaves of sweet-smelling rosemary and
another strange symbolic item growing out of its petals - a
single red passion flower.
The carnation, Christian legend says, first
bloomed from the tears of the Virgin Mary as Christ carried the
cross. The passionflower prophecizes his sacrifice to come -- the
crown of thorns, the wounds, the lashes.
It is a tumultuous prediction, one that will
change the world.
On the table is an apple or a quince, often seen in
these representations of virgin and child. If an apple, it represents
the temptation of Eve. White lilies and roses are sometimes seen, as
well as grapes, a symbol of the sacrament and sacrifice for sins.
Did a Churchman alter
In Europe, the
flower could also be used to
resymbolize the power of the Church as the Reformation began to appear
and dissenters and disbelievers were hunted out and excommunicated or
murdered by the millions, in both
Europe and the New World.
History tells us of the slaughter of Protestants
in Antwerp in 1576 in an event dubbed
"The Spanish Fury." Six thousand residents of Antwerp were slain
by Spanish soldiers, angry that they hadn't been paid for years by
their king. One might imagine an
owner of the van Cleve, in an effort to waylay an inquiry into his
beliefs, contracting an artist to add the passion
flower to the van Cleve painting. Perhaps a functionary in the Church
change in the
Perhaps the flower was added to the painting
by a thankful nobleman, such as depicted by the later Rembrandt,
whose family might have escaped a recurrence of the black death.
A still, small religious voice reaches out from the
painting, and that voice speaks to us today of the depth of belief of
those who witnessed the world before science drained it of the utterly
miraculous, where death and wretched disease were constant
companions, and where the Church held the key to the only
happiness that could exist.
by the Maya and Aztec for food, ritual
Grown for its sweet, tart, perfumed fruit by
the Aztecs and ancient native
cultures which may have noted its sedative powers, the flower was found
in places variously described as Florida, Peru and
Virginia. It is possible the flower was used in ritual.
precious and incredible frescoes at the ancient
site of Bonampak in Chiapas, Mexico, dated about 790 A.D., show a
Mayan official apparently wearing a flower headdress which suggests
that these vines were used in dress for ritual in meso-America.
Known as the
"maracock" by native Americans
which blooms in the United States, was noted by the famous Capt. John
in Virginia as grown by the native Americans for its fruit.
called the fruit the "maracock," he wrote in his diary. The
seeds of this fruit have been discovered in archaeological digs in
in the southern U.S.
The flowers bloom not far from ancient Indian
mounds in our community near Lake Jackson in Tallahassee, Florida,
where one may imagine
pre-Columbian Indians farming the plant, as perhaps the Apalachee
tribes did at
the time of the De Soto exploration of Florida. They were food for the Apalachee
Indian tribe at Mission San Luis, the largest Spanish mission west
of St. Augustine in Florida, 1656-1704.
(continued in column to
right beneath photographs
or simply CLICK here)
Joos van Cleve's Madonna and Child,
with flower in question at the left.
It sprouts from a red carnation, with
leaves of rosemary also sprouting from
the carnation. The carnation and the
rosemary also have symbolic properties
in other religious paintings. Rosemary
is not unknown to sprout from carnations
in a few Renaissance works.
Below, an enlargement, showing
the crown of thorns, typical of the
much-later rendition of the flower
by the Jesuits.
Photograph provided by the
Cincinnati Art Museum
The painting was a
Centennial Gift of the
of Fine Arts.
Enlargement of the Passion Flower.
from the painting, dated 1530-1535.
mystery artist get
passion flower from? See our special
page of comparisons.
Below, the drawing by church scholar
Giacomo Bosio circa the year 1610.
This flower shows an imaginary
crown of thorns around the stigma,
as do other drawings by churchmen
at that time.
Mauro Serricchio of the
Passiflora Society helped us to
obtain this picture.
Below, Passiflora incarnata,
hundreds of species, thrives in the
eastern United States. It was mentioned
by Capt. John Smith in his writings on
Virginia and depicted true to natural
form in 1629 by John Parkinson,
Paradisi in Sole, Paradisus Terrestris
which was published in London. See
page for Parkinson.
Photo by Michael E. Abrams,
Fruit of the Passiflora incarnata
in the Eastern
United States is below, and tastes sweet and tart.
Granadilla, below, the fruit of another species,
is grown in the subtropics for its luscious flavor
and juices. Its fragrance is used in lotions and
shampoos. Its calming, sedative properties are
found in teas, health products and medications.
Photos of flower, fruit, copyright M.E. Abrams
of the Inquiry
Many people in the art and
botanical worlds have
described the story of this painting as worth exploring.
The painting, itself, has been substantiated as van
by such authorities as van Cleve biographer and expert John Oliver Hand
and the late
art expert Max Friedlander. That the painting is his, is not in
doubt. The passion flower had been accepted as authentically van
Hand, curator of Northern Renaissance
paintings at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., is
currently the foremost authority on van Cleve.
"I'm sort of surprised," said Hand. "I hadn't thought about (the
painting) for a while. It's an interesting thing to know."
"I looked at the website and think it's quite possible that this
passion flower was added later," said Hand.
Somebody else apparently
came in and worked on the painting, he said. Hand said the true
is the physical evidence established by the Cincinnati museum. The
work, itself, remains a high quality piece by the artist, he said.
He said that could think of no other
painting of Madonna and Child of the same era that had a passion flower
The painting in the Kansas City museum, much
similar, could be sort of a clue. It did not have a passion flower.
Hand said he had thought it "very
odd" that one flower would "proliferate" out of another, and had he
more time, he might have looked further into it, but that he was
following his source material.
In his recent biography Joos van Cleve: The Complete Paintings
(Yale University Press, 2004) writes that the passion flower in the
painting "has been
identified as Passiflora caerulea,
whose blossom uncannily appears to be composed of the
crown of thorns, the five wounds, the three nails, and even the columns
and styles that figured into Christ's torment. No wonder then that the
plant is known as the Passion flower. ."
He cited Mark Carter Leach, 1979, in the journal Studies in Iconography in the
article Michelangelo Invenit, Joos
van Cleve Explicavit.
Sparing some leeway for interpretation,
Caerulea is actually a white flower, fairly typical of the
family, and it could be a stretch to visualize a "crown of
thorns" upon it. As in nature, no species of passion flower has such a
subtending its stigma.
Curator Andy Haslit of Cincinnati suggests the artist of
the mystery flower was taking its symbolic value above its botanical
value, and that is "artist's license."
Mystery artist may have
never viewed the flower
It is, however, possible that the mystery artist had never seen a
passion flower, and that it would have been painted from rumors passed
this way and that in the 17th Century, whispers of wonderment set afire
by the fevered religious imagination.
Or, perhaps the red flower was fashioned from a woodcut
threads of rumor. It is so plain, so rudimentary in form that it is
still one of the first
representations of the flower in Europe.
Curator Haslit (he has since left the museum to study for his
doctorate) says that it was not uncommon for paintings
to be altered. The similarity of the van Cleve flower to a 1600's
woodcut impresses him. "I'm saying the passion flower is close enough
to the woodcut to be directly from it."
"The idea of this being altered
is fairly common as tastes change," he said. People did not have a
modern sensibility toward paintings, and "they would have no more
compuction to adding on to a painting as we would to adding on to our
For example, a Titian, owned by the museum had been
heavily reworked, he said. It was a portrait of Phillip II, a
Hapsburg. One artist added a crown, another a scepter, and
another put him on a throne. The Vatican museum, as another example,
decided to "fig leaf" all of its statues in the 1800s.
Up until 50 years ago, it was common to hire a restorer who was
actually an artist who would repaint over an original, said
Barbara J. Sussman, a member of the American Society of
Appraisers, said many paintings have been altered because of "the
fashion of the times." However, she said, "One would never
consider making an alteration to a painting today, as the education and
appreciation of art has increased and awareness for the work in its
purist state is always being sought."
"In my opinion, purity rules."
Sussman's clients include the New York
Historical Society and the Yale University Art Gallery. (http://www.sussmanart.com)
Rembrandt was altered,
In 2003, a Rembrandt came to light, she
said. This rediscovered work showed an elderly woman in a white cap
with a fur collar. The fur collar, investigation showed, had not been
part of the original painting and was added later to make the portrait
"a woman of class rather than an elderly servant." The painting was
painstakingly repaired, and sold at auction at Sotheby's for
Restoration increases the value of a painting.
Van Cleve painted in Antwerp in the Netherlands, a
bustling commercial center for the time, where ships came in from all
over the New World. As the economy boomed, painters moved from
selling on commission to putting their wares into the marketplace on
speculation of a sale, explains John Hand. van Cleve had a workshop and
helpers, as did many artists. This explains the similarity of paintings
by any particular artist - if a painting sold well, why not paint a
similar one? Thus, the painting in the Kansas City museum sans
passion flower, and another one, in a museum in France. We discuss the three madonnas here and
our recent discovery of what may be Hebrew script on the Cincinnati
The van Cleve provenance: it can be traced from 1913
"bounces around Paris a couple of times" and winds up in a collection
of E. W. Edwards who gave it to the museum in 1981.
A van Cleve was auctioned
half-million dollars in 1993, and recent pieces have been auctioned
from $100,000 to $350,000. Four years ago the Madonna of the Cherries went for
$222,572 at Sotheby's.
All that Haslit can say about the painting's value, under museum
rules, is that "it's worth more than $10." How much money it is worth
may be up to the market to determine some day. Its real worth is in the
heart and imagination of those who gaze upon this Madonna and Child.
essential to putting this
story together. The author wishes to state his obligation to Jill
Rosenshield, the associate curator for Special Collections at
The University of Wisconsin, Madison, and to Colum P. Hourihane,
Director of the Index of Christian Art at Princeton University,
who went out of their way to give kind help in researching botanical
illustration and religious iconography in the 16th Century. How
admirable is their field of endeavor to this journalist.
We would also like to thank Andy Haslit of the Cincinnati Museum
whose interest in solving this riddle is vital to the entire story,
and John Oliver Hand, National Gallery curator and Joos van
Cleve biographer, for his comments on the painting.
More information about passion flowers may be found at an excellent
website by Myles Irvine at http://www.passionflow.co.uk
John Haber, an art critic in New York, elaborates on our van
Cleve discovery in his extensive art website. His van Cleve page
is located at http://www.haberarts.com/myintro.htm
missteps, in fact and understanding, which he hopes are few and will,
he anticipates, be corrected upon further education, are solely his
The Tallahassee Democrat has written an article at http://www.tallahassee.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?
Michael E. Abrams,
Professor of Journalism
Florida A&M University
Tallahassee, FL 32307