Apples on Paintings

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The apple is one of the most widely cultivated and used tree fruits. About 80 million tons of apples were grown in the world in 2013, and China produced almost half of this total. No wonder that apples are of great importance in any culture and nation. Because of its exceptional qualities, an apple is an element that appears in many religious traditions, various national and ethnic folk legends or fairy tales where it was considered as divine food and the source of immortality.

Apples in Culture

Greek Mythology – Atalanta

Three golden Apples were featured in Greek mythology, in which a huntress named Atalanta raced against a suitor named Hippomenes who used the golden apples to distract her so that he could win the race:
“After Atalanta participated in the hunt and received the pelt, her father claimed her as his offspring and wanted her to get married. Although a very beautiful maiden, Atalanta did not particularly want to marry after an oracle told her that she will gain bad luck if she marries. In order to get her a husband, her father made a deal with Atalanta that she would marry anybody who could beat her in a foot race. Atalanta happily agreed, as she could run extremely fast. She outran many suitors. The one accomplished this through brains, not speed. Hippomenes knew that he could not win a fair race with Atalanta, so he prayed to Aphrodite for help. The goddess gave him three golden apples and told him to drop them one at a time to distract Atalanta. Sure enough, she quit running long enough to retrieve each golden apple. It took all three apples and all of his speed, but Hippomenes finally succeeded, winning the race and Atalanta’s hand. Unfortunately, Hippomenes forgot to thank the Goddess and she turned them into lions”

Apples in Culture

“The Garden of the Hesperides" by Frederick, Lord Leighton, 1892

The Garden of the Hesperides

The Garden of the Hesperides, Atlas’ daughters, is Hera’s orchard in the west, where either a single tree or a grove of immortality-giving golden apples grew. The apples were planted from the fruited branches that Gaia gave to her as a wedding gift when Hera accepted Zeus. The Hesperides were given the task of tending to the grove, but occasionally plucked from it themselves. Not trusting them, Hera also placed in the garden a never-sleeping, hundred-headed dragon named Ladon as an additional safeguard.
The eleventh Labor of Hercules was to steal the golden apples from the garden. He stole the apples by asking Atlas to steal the apples and in return he would hold up the sky for him. Then after Atlas picked the apples Hercules asked Atlas to hold up the sky for him while he made a pad of the lion skin but did not take it back and ran away.

Apples in Culture

Adam and Eve, a classic depiction of the biblical tale showcasing the apple as a symbol of sin, by Albrecht Dürer, 1507

The Book of Genesis

Though the forbidden fruit in the Book of Genesis is not identified, popular Christian tradition has held that it was an apple that Eve coaxed Adam to share with her. This may have been the result of Renaissance painters adding elements of Greek mythology into biblical scenes. In this case the unnamed fruit of Eden became an apple under the influence of story of the golden apples in the Garden of Hesperides. As a result, in the story of Adam and Eve, the apple became a symbol for knowledge, immortality, temptation, the fall of man into sin, and sin itself. In Latin, the words for “apple” and for “evil” are similar in the singular (malus—apple, malum—evil).

Apples in Culture

“Snow White”, William Creswell from Seattle, Washington, USA. From a book of German fairy tales called Märchenbuch, c1919

Fairy Tales

Many European fairy tales begin with apples. A well-known example is the Brothers Grimm tale “Snow White”, in which Snow White’s evil stepmother offers her a poisonous apple which puts her to sleep. Another evil stepmother maliciously offers her stepchild an apple in another Brothers Grimm fairy tale, “The Juniper Tree”.

Apples in Culture

Freia - a combination of Freyja and the goddess Iðunn (from Richard Wagner's opera “Der Ring des Nibelungen”) as illustrated by Arthur Rackham, 1910

Norse Mythology

Norse mythology flourished during the Viking Age and following the Christianization of Scandinavia during the High Middle Ages passed into Nordic folklore, some aspects surviving to the modern day. According to it, the golden apples are the source of the god’s immortality and perpetual youth. They are cultivated by – and most often associated with – the goddess Freyja, who was associated with love, beauty, fertility, gold, war, and death.

Gallery images:

  • “Apples With A Tankard And Jug” by Joseph Bail
  • “The Virgin and Child under an Apple Tree” by Lucas Cranach the Elder, between 1520 and 1526
  •  “An Apple gathering” by Frederick Morgan
  • “Bob Apple” by Frederick Morgan
  • “Jeune Fille et Enfant” by William Bouguereau.
  • Contencin Istres. La Vendange De Pommes (The Apple Harvest)
  • “Still Life of Apples in a Hat”  by Levi Wells Prentice.
  • “The Basket of Apples” by Paul Cézanne, 1890–1894
  • “The Apple Picker” by  Léon Bazile Perrault
  • “Two Young Men” by Crispin van den Broeck, c. 1590
  • “Venus Verticordia” by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1866
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