The LuEsther T. Mertz Library


The ancient Romans employed myths of gods and goddesses to explain occurrences in the natural world. The Roman myth of Proserpina explains why there is winter.

One day, when Proserpina, daughter of Ceres, the goddess of agriculture, was gathering flowers in the fields, she was abducted by Pluto, god of the underworld, and carried off to his kingdom. Ceres was consumed with grief and in anger she scorched the earth, preventing grain from growing and the earth from producing fruit. Forced to intervene, Jupiter negotiated a compromise that provided Proserpina had not eaten anything while in the underworld she would be set free. Pluto however had offered Proserpina part of a pomegranate, which she accepted. The Fates would not allow Proserpina to be fully released, but a settlement was agreed upon by which she would spend part of the year with Pluto in the underworld (winter) and part of the year with her mother Ceres (summer). When Proserpina is with Pluto the earth is barren and cold and when she returns to her mother, Ceres pours forth the blessings of spring to welcome her beloved daughter home.

"Flora, Æsculapius, Ceres, with Cupid, Honoring the Bust of Linnæus"

John Russel and John Opie
Stipple engraving printed in color, finished by hand
from Robert Thornton (1768–1837)
New illustration of the sexual system of Carolus von Linnaeus
London: For the author by T. Bensley,1807

The opening plate depicts Ceres, the goddess of agriculture, along with Flora, the goddess of flowers, paying tribute to a bust of Linneaus, the father of modern botany. The Temple of Flora is the third and final part of a lavish work honoring the Linnaean system of plant classification. The finished work is better known for its artistic achievement than for its scientific accuracy.

"Raptus Proserpinae"
J.F. Leopold
from Simon Thomassin (ca. 1654- 1733)
Furstellung der jenigen Statuen, Groupen, Bader, Brunnen, Vasen,…
Augsburg: J.F. Leopold, 1720
The statue of the rape of Proserpina depicts the moment of her abduction by Pluto, god of the underworld. Francois Giraudon was the most eminent sculptor in 17th century France and the dominant sculptor for the gardens of the palace of Versailles under Louis XIV. His sculpture of Proserpina achieved great acclaim and was considered to be his masterpiece.
"The Colonnade"
John Bowles
from John Bowles (1701- 1779)
Versailles illustrated; or, Divers views of the several parts of the royal palace of Versailles
London: Printed and sold by John Bowles, 1726
             Giraudon’s sculpture was given a dramatic setting in the royal gardens at the Château of Versailles. Jules Hardouin Mansart, chief architect of Louis XIV, designed the fountain Colonnade erected in 1684 that surrounds the statue. This elaborate structure was the setting for numerous concerts given by the King and can still be seen in the gardens of Versailles.

"Punica granatum"

Pierre-Joseph Redouté
Stipple engraving printed in color
from Henri Louis Duhamel du Monceau (1700–1782)
Traite des arbres et arbustes que l’on cultive en France en pleine terre
Paris: Chez Etienne Michel, 1809

The pomegranate, a Persian native, was well known to the Romans. In addition to its edible fruit, the seeds and leaves are used for medicinal purposes and the flowers and bark are used for dyes. Its leathery skin provides a long storage life that made it an important food source along the arduous Asian trade routes, earning it the name "fruit of paradise."

"Punica foliis-lanceolatis"
Georg Dionysius Ehret
Hand-colored engraving
from Christoph Jacob Trew (1695–1769)
Plantae selectae
Nuremberg: J.J. Haid, 1750–1773
While the fruit of the pomegranate may be familiar to those who dwell in temperate climates, its attractive flowers are not as well known. Georg Dionysius Ehret, one of the finest botanical illustrators of the 18th century, considered the pomegranate unique enough to merit several variant depictions in this work.
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