The opening scene in the 1969 Soviet film The Color of Pomegranates, an abstract narrative of an Armenian poet’s life, shows three of the forbidden fruits bleeding through a crisp white tablecloth. Perhaps the scene alludes to the pomegranate’s symbol of the spilled blood of Dionysus, or it could stand for the holy trinity that bled for us and our sins. But the same color red mysteriously permeates throughout the film, notably in dress and textile: the towel of the baths masseur, the liturgical robes of the priests, the carpets woven by the eerie, wailing weavers, all display a stark red against an otherwise flat backdrop. And while the role of the fruit in the poet’s fate is ambiguous, its function as a signifier of religious sentiment is clear.
Such an example of the cryptic occult power of the pomegranate is in keeping with its history, as its meaning has always evaded man. “About the pomegranate I must say nothing,” notes the traveller Pausanias in the 2nd century, “for its story is somewhat of a holy mystery.”
The Bible sees it as representing the the universe one oneness, where the multiplicity and diversity of all things (the seeds) is reconciled in a single unit (the shell). In Christianity, depictions of pomegranates are often woven into church vestments and wall hangings, the broken fruit bursting with seeds symbolizing Christ’s suffering and resurrection.
In Jewish tradition, it is said that the seeds are 613 in total, corresponding to the number of Commandments of the Torah. In the Old Testament, it is written that representations of the fruit were embroidered onto the hem of the robe worn by the Hebrew high priest.
The decidedly sexual-looking fruit appears often in relation to the divine feminine. In the major arcana of the Tarot, the robes of the pregnant Empress display its motif, as she signifies fertility for ideas and the creative bearing of fruit. The mythological priests of Attis, the castrated consort of the earth goddess Cybele, wore pomegranates on their heads in wreaths. The calyx of the fruit was first worn as a crown by the Greek Goddess Hera and would go on to inspire the tiara.
The pomegranate tree’s bark has been a source for tannin used in curing leather. Its rind and flowers may be used as a textile dye. In the fifteenth century, the Mesopotamia-born motif found popularity in Central Asia, Europe and the Ottoman textiles. In the 19th century Americas, Navajo silversmiths co-opted the form from Mexican silver ornaments found on clothing, horse gear and jewelry. It’s now an archetypal symbol firmly entrenched in the collective psyche.
Its arousing beauty explains its prevalence in dress throughout the ages while its luteal interior, abundant with life-giving seeds and blood-like juice, accounts for its enduring mystery. But history-long attempts at insight into its psychic life show it’s a code that can’t be cracked.