The importance of plants in religious art

By Professor Ellen Hernandez

Ellen Hernandez

MARRAKECH, Morocco — What is the message conveyed by the representation of plants in religious texts? What do the images that these references send back to us about a people and a society tell us? These are the questions posed by award-winning artist and author Gloria Abella Ballen, whose book Garden of Eden: Plants from the Hebrew Bible was the subject of a recent webinar sponsored by the American Sephardic Federation.

Born in Bogota, Colombia, Abella Ballen grew up in a Spanish Jewish family of artists and anthropologists. She has made a career of artistic expression influenced by her travels and international residences, notably in Morocco, and her study of Sephardic illuminated texts. His 2015 book The power of the Hebrew alphabet guides the reader through the visual expressions of the 22 letters of the alphabet, blending art, symbolism and religious spirituality. This book, prepared through research in Oxford libraries and in the United States, Israel and Spain, has received numerous awards for its fusion of art and religious symbolism.

In Abella Ballen’s latest work, she examines the literal and allegorical role of plants as referenced in the Hebrew Bible which appear not only in the text but in the vegetation depicted in her art and in the architecture of her religious sites. For example, there are red and green leaves and flowers adorning the Torah niche of the 14th-century Samuel Halevi Abulafia (El Tránsito) Synagogue in Toledo, Spain, in a style similar to nearby Islamic buildings built before the Muslim and Jewish expulsions. The last 15th-century example of a Hebrew Bible from the Iberian Peninsula—the Coruña, or Kennicott, text—was richly decorated by artist Joseph Ibn Hayyim with depictions of tiny flowers, trees, and fruits.

The plants prevalent in the Middle East, the Mediterranean and the Maghreb make appearances in the religious texts of the three Abrahamic religions and, through this, even Jews, Christians and Muslims who are not from these regions have become familiar with fig, date and pomegranate, with saffron, cinnamon and cedar. Their references in the texts serve not only as narrative context but also as allegorical symbols.

Fig trees are frequently referred to, as Abella Ballen has pointed out, in practical terms as a food to sustain people and as a symbol of health, fidelity and blessings. “So Judah and Israel lived in safety, each under his vine and his fig tree, from Dan even to Beersheba, all the days of Solomon” (Kings 4:25). In his book, the author devoted a section to the fig, having drawn it in all its full and round succulence, accompanied by its Latin, English and Hebrew names as well as several verses in which it is mentioned. She remarked during the presentation that she wanted the reader to “walk into the field and smell the scent of the fruit”.

Figs are among the variety of plants grown in the nurseries of the High Atlas Foundation as part of its fruit tree campaign to improve the lives of Moroccan farming families. Millions of seeds have been planted, mostly funded by Ecosia, the German social enterprise. Capacity building for those seeking to transition from subsistence farming of corn and barley to fruits such as figs, carob and pomegranate has been achieved through the expertise of volunteers from the Farmer-to program -USAID farmer during visits to more than 80 cooperatives in three provinces. .

The High Atlas Foundation is also launching a new project in 2021 with USAID funding to preserve memories and sites of Morocco’s interfaith past. Elderly Muslim citizens who remember the days before the formation of Israel, when thousands of Moroccan Jews lived side by side with them, will tell their stories and these will be captured, digitized, archived and shared with Moroccan youth of today, who knows little about this history, if at all. HAF will honor and commemorate the sites where Moroccan Jews lived, worked and revered, and create opportunities for participatory community development that recognizes and celebrates the nation’s rich and diverse culture. The preservation of Moroccan Christian history will also be part of the project.

Recognition of Morocco’s interreligious history and its intercultural significance are linked to trees and plants. A number of HAF nurseries have been built on land lent in kind by the Jewish community of Morocco, on land adjacent to Jewish cemeteries. While the families of those buried there are mostly long gone in the great post-World War II diaspora, their graves are lovingly cared for by Muslim caretakers who understand their importance. From this land, fruit tree seeds of cherry, lemon, pomegranate and more have been planted by the millions, carefully tended to grow into saplings that help farming families improve their economic and social status. As people of the Abrahamic faith are inextricably linked by their common beliefs, so are the land, plants and people of Morocco.

“Let us go early to the vineyards to see if the vines have budded, if their flowers have opened, and if the pomegranate trees are in bloom” (Song of Solomon 7:12-13). Pomegranates are a symbol of life, fertility, love and beauty, with diverse cultural and religious significance. We see them throughout Mediterranean and North African cultures, even in the embroidery on the hems of clerical vestments or in the hands of the infant Jesus at Botticelli. Madonna of the Pomegranate. The Quran mentions the fruit as a sign of Allah’s blessings, whether as an actual fruit with healing properties or as a representation of Paradise. As Abella Ballen said, “The Bible is like an orchard; the Torah is a paradise. When you think of the Garden of Eden, it’s tranquil, colorful, and those colors come naturally, unconsciously into my art.

The author explains that she wants readers to get a sense of the smell and taste of the object when looking at the images, such as those of myrrh, garlic, and cedar. The cedar is a symbol of strength and durability, as in this verse promising not to abandon the poor and needy: “I will put in the desert the cedar and the acacia, the myrtle and the olive. In the desert I will put junipers, the fir and the cypress together” (Isaiah 41:19). The Moroccan High Atlas Mountains offer incredible biodiversity, with cedars, oaks and all kinds of plants growing there, as well as olive and carob trees grown and managed under HAF’s programs.

Art comes from texts and the bounty of the Earth, and vegetation brings life and sustenance to people, literally and spiritually.


Ellen Hernandez teaches English at Camden County College, based in Blackwood, New Jersey. She is a freelance writer and volunteer at the High Atlas Foundation.