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’, www.Smithsonianmag.com, [accessed 18 June 2019]
15 “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. 2Every branch of mine that bears no fruit, he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. 3You are already made clean by the word which I have spoken to you. 4Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. 5I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. 6If a man does not abide in me, he is cast forth as a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire and burned. 7If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you will, and it shall be done for you. 8By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be my disciples. 9As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you; abide in my love. 10If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.
12 “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. 14You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. 16You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide; so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. 17This I command you, to love one another.