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The Olive Tree In Art

Not just "oil painting...": how the olive tree has been depicted in art.

Up until the 19th century, the olive plant or branch was always depicted by painters, illustrators, and sculptors with strong symbolic meanings connected with both the classical and the Judeo-Christian traditions. In fact, only in the 1800s did attention to a realistic rendering of the landscape lead to representations of flowers and plants separate from allegorical meanings, and thus to an increase in canvases in which the Italian landscape is recognized by the constant presence of olive trees. In fact, since antiquity the olive tree was always associated with the meaning of peace and harmony. In Greek and Roman mythology it was associated with the goddess Athena/Minerva, depicted with an olive branch in her hand, and in the Christian tradition it was associated with various episodes and figures. One of the most well known, and which is found with a certain frequency in Roman catacombs, is certainly that narrated by the Old Testament when, after the great flood, the dove returned to Noah carrying an olive branch, symbolizing peace restored between God and mankind. This symbolic meaning also tells us why the olive tree was associated with the representation of the Virgin Mary, whose immaculate conception sanctions definitive peace between God and man after the Original Sin.

Often in scenes of the Annunciation, it is the Archangel Gabriel who holds an olive branch, as in the splendid panel by Simone Martini (Fig. 1), one of the greatest Sienese painters of the 14th century, where the little branch around the angel's head, also, is combined with the lily, which symbolizes virginity. Both stand out against the gold background, filling the distance between the eyes of the Virgin and those of her herald. 

The Sacred Scriptures tell us of other events, also, in which the presence of the olive tree is mentioned, such as the entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem, but also his speech in the Garden and the Ascension, which take place on the Mount of the Olives. In the entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem, the olive tree has the same meaning as the palm tree, that is, it alludes to both the feast and the imminent martyrdom: in the representation by Duccio da Buoninsegna, the crowd greets the Lord holding branches, and some of them climb up into the olive trees to see the entrance of Jesus into the city better.

The idea of a figure that climbs an olive tree to see an important event better has already been used in a scene of one of the most well-known and admired cycles, preserved in our Umbrian town of Assisi. It is precisely Giotto who shows, more than once, in the frescoes of the cycle of St. Francis in the Upper Basilica of Assisi, the tree that most characterizes the landscape of the region. In St. Franci Mourned by St. Clare, the youth we see in the background is climbing up into an olive tree, the tree that is present in more than one scene: from the Miracle of the Spring (Fig. 4) to St. Francis Preaching to the Birds

In the works of Sandro Botticelli, also, we frequently find an association of this plant with the sacred sphere, as in Agony in the Garden and Mystic Nativity. The evening of the Last Supper, Jesus brings James, John, and Peter to the garden of Gethsemane to pray and avoid falling into temptation. “Gethsemane” means literally “oil press”, a rustic farm at the feet of the Mount of Olives. The fact that the garden is an olive grove is not without significance: olive trees, according to Hebrew tradition, are the candelabras of God, and it is not by chance that Jesus awaits a sign from God about his destiny precisely there, and it is there that he is arrested after Judas' betrayal. We can see how Botticelli faithfully follows the words of the Gospel: Jesus leaves the group of three apostles and, kneeling down, he begins to pray, and an angel appears from the sky to comfort him. In the foreground are the disciples who, instead of watching over him, have fallen asleep.

The Mystic Nativity was done during the final phase of Botticelli's production, when he had by then moved away from mythological subject like Spring or The Birth of Venus, and there are strong mystical echoes and influences of the preachings of Savonarola, the monk who brought about the painter's religious crisis. The peace following the birth of the Savior is symbolically represented in the sky and on earth by the dance of the angels, who are holding crowns and olive branches, as well as by the embrace of the figures in the foreground.

There are also, however, works belonging to a previous phase, in which Botticelli used this symbol of peace, associating it with different figures: from biblical figures, such as in Judith with the Head of Holofernes, to figures taken from mythology, as in Pallas and the Centaur: in this canvas the branches encircling the head and body of the goddess stand not so much for the idea of peace, as for that of knowledge, another of the attributes customarily given to Athena. The gesture of the goddess shows the symbolic passage of knowledge from the Dionysian sphere, of which the Centaur is an emblem, to the rational sphere.

The olive tree is associated with Athena in another episode also, that in which the goddess teaches Cecrops, the first mythical king of Athens, the science of olive-growing. There are, however, only rare representations of this subject matter, and one is that by Pietro da Cortona, which he chose to fresco one of the lunettes of Palazzo Pitti in Florence.

In addition to episodes taken from the mythological and the Judeo-Christian worlds, the olive branch also accompanies some of the salient moments of people's lives, such as weddings. In the canvas by Paolo Veronese, various details, full of symbolic meanings, amplify the importance of the celebration; the union of the new couple is echoed by a series of elements that acquire a very precise value: the crown of myrtle, with which the bride is about to be crowned, alludes to eternal love and faithfulness, as does the dog attentively watching the event being celebrated. The play of arms created by the painter highlights the olive branch the couple are holding delicately in their hands, again a symbol of peace and harmony. The figures seen from below, the light coming from below, the daring viewpoint, and the chromatic and decorative richness are some of the stylistic notes characteristic of the great Venetian painter in the second half of the 16th century.

Studies conducted to assess the frequency of the representations of oil and the olive tree during the Middle Ages have shown that they are absent in the cycles of the months that we see carved in many of our Italian cathedrals: usually, in these series, the month is represented through man's labor, for example September with one or more men picking grapes. But the month of November is not shown with the picking or processing of olives, but what is usually represented is the action of sowing or plowing. This absence, however, is countered by the high frequency of references to olive oil that can be found in the Taccuina Sanitatis, small encyclopedias of medicine from the medieval period, in which its nutritional value and the fact that it could aid digestion are stressed. In any case, throughout the Middle Ages and, as we have seen, also in the following centuries, the olive tree always remains associated with precise symbolic and metaphorical meanings; in this sense it is also used in the coats-of-arms of famous families and in numerous 17th-century mottos.

For the olive tree to be represented realistically, it is necessary to wait until the 19th century, when began the process of depicting landscapes down to their smallest details, and the fact that they become autonomous subject matter for paintings, make the olive tree become a constant presence in the Italian and, more in general, Mediterranean landscape. In the works by Telemaco Signorini and Giovanni Fattori, two of the main representatives of the “Macchiaiolo” movement, this new trend is very visible. In Olive Trees on the Seashore, the view shown no longer has any idealized elements: the uncontaminated vegetation, the parched ground, and the sea in the background evoke the real and concrete world that Fattori proposes in many of his other works, that to which his peasants, soldiers, oxen, and horses belong.

We cannot conclude this quick excursus without mentioning the numerous landscapes painted by Van Gogh, some very famous, showing cypress trees, wheat fields, orchards, harvests, and gardens, and others perhaps less so, like the series devoted by the painter to olive trees. Van Gogh wrote, in a letter to his brother Theo, that the difficulty encountered in painting the leaves of the olive tree lay in recreating their color, in reproducing their silvery gray effect.

Even if the subject of numerous canvases always remains the same, the strong chromatic contrasts and different luminosity of the paintings create very different effects: in Olive Grove (Fig. 12), today in the Van Gogh Museum, the sinuous trunks and flaming crowns do not stand out against a lighter and illuminated undergrowth, as is the case in some other canvases, but instead merge with it, and the sky becomes just barely distinguishable. These shapes, like the spiraling ones in Starry Night or Cypress Trees, are marked by strong tonalities and darker colors, by now definitely far from those drenched in the sunnier and more luminous tones characterizing many of the artist's previous works.