Vertumnus by Giuseppe Arcimboldo

Giuseppe Arcimboldo

Vertumnus, 1591, Oil on panel, 70 x 58 cm, Skoklosters Slott, Sweden, 11615, Photo: Skokloster Castle, Sweden / Bridgeman Images

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Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1527–93) was an Italian Renaissance painter well-known for an innovative and imaginative style that incorporated a variety of objects like fruits, vegetables, flowers, fish, and books. He is often heralded as the inspiration behind the twentieth-century avant-garde movement, Surrealism.

Vertumnus is named after the Roman god of the seasons—a god of metamorphoses and change—and is a portrait of the Habsburg emperor, Rudolf II. The painting seems absurd and playful in its grotesquery. But it may be trying to capture something more, as though telling a ‘serious joke’ (Kaufmann 2010: 199), for it is a reflection on the political situation of the Habsburg Empire at the time when it was painted. This exquisite cornucopia foretells a coming ‘golden age’ that is flush with plenitude. When we realize how the Habsburgs’ influence was expanding—evidenced here by the exotic renderings of fruits, flowers, and vegetables unattainable in continental Europe—we realize that this imperial portrait is no merely amusing fancy.

Arcimboldo’s Vertumnus brings into relief the metamorphosis Jesus’s followers will endure as the Gardener prunes and burns the branches that do not bear fruit (John 15:2–6). This process of change is intended to restore (John 15:3) and produce more fruit by the Spirit such that the Gardener is honoured and glorified (John 15:6–8).

What is this fruit? Why does it glorify the Father? Might its manifestation in the Christian life initially appear absurd (perhaps monstrous), while harbouring a deeper meaning and beauty that is disclosed to the discerning?

Jesus identifies this fruit as love, a love born counterintuitively through obedience and sacrifice. In the deeds of the disciples, this love glorifies the Father because it conforms to Jesus’s own love (John 15:9–12).

The manifestation of this fruit in the lives and faces of Jesus’s disciples is not merely for their benefit (John 15:11); rather, it is to be extended into and shared with the world. It is evidence of God’s Kingdom in the present and its future coming (John 15:15–17), where there will be plenitude, flourishing, and abundance—a true ‘golden age’ (Revelation 21–22).   



Kaufmann, Thomas DaCosta. 2010. Arcimboldo: Visual Jokes, Natural History, and Still-Life Painting (Chicago: University of Chicago Press)

Tucker, Abigail. 2011. ‘Arcimboldo’s Feast for the Eyes, January 2011’,, [accessed 18 June 2019]

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