A History of the Apple in 10 Objects: Garden of Eden

Albrecht Durer, Adam and Eve, 1504
Source: Victoria and Albert Museum

The Garden of Eden isn’t an object per se, but it’s hard – maybe impossible – to talk about the apple without at least mentioning that famous event in that famous garden in that really, really famous book. Of all the ideas associated with apples, the notion of paradise probably springs to mind most readily. Most modern Christians believe that Eve snatched the apple for Adam at the serpent’s bidding, forever banishing them from Paradise.

But there’s a problem with this version of events. The original Hebrew text only says “fruit” – it never says which fruit, apple or otherwise. But artistic depictions of the event, ranging from serious religious paintings to cartoons, nearly always show an apple as the fruit in question.

How did that happen?

The apple began appearing in devotional works  in Western art in the Middle Ages. Early Christian scholars interpreted the forbidden fruit to be an apple, possibly because the Latin word malum can mean both “apple” or “evil.” It also probably helped that apples were more popular in Europe, where most of these Christians lived, than in the Middle East, where the Garden likely grew. They needed a fruit, looked out the window, saw apples, and voila! Apples received the… crown.

However, it’s pretty unlikely that sweet apples could grow on land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Apple seeds require a cold chill to germinate, a climactic condition that area of the world is not known for. The Eastern Church, perhaps more climactically aware, favored figs as the forbidden fruit. The struggle between apples and figs played out for centuries in religious art.

But the fig has something else in its favor besides climate – what happens after Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit? They cover themselves in fig leaves, not apple branches!

It didn’t really matter what the fruit was, though, because after the Garden of Eden, the possession of apples came to be associated with danger, desire, and fecundity – an association that proved hard to shake for many centuries.

Just to confuse matters more, some scholars now suppose the fruit to have been a pomegranate.

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