Pretzel Logic

job adriaenszoon berckheyde
Job Adriaenszoon Berckheyde, “The Baker”

A few days ago a friend joked about being in an “art historical pretzel,” i.e. she was writing in circles. It dissolved into jokes about pretzels in art…you had to be there I guess. But it got me to thinking: if art is a lens through which we can see the entirety of human history (and this is the kind of high-minded response I give to people who make fun of my major), then it’s worth studying the mundane things as well as the objects with obvious symbolic gravitas. So, pretzels in art. It is surprisingly far from the silliest thing I could be talking about. They’ve got a lot to do with Catholicism and thus death! Everything in Catholicism comes back to death.

There are a few leading theories as to the origins of the pretzel, but  most carry religious  significance. Possibly either the French or Italians in the seventh century (or later) gave the snacks to children as a reward for learning their catechisms, with the pretzel’s twisted shape representing the crossed arms of a person in prayer. Maybe bakers needed a new shape that didn’t have heathen connotations (as opposed to a sun cross or triskelion, for example). The pretzel’s ingredients are all foods that can be eaten during a Lenten fast. Or, maybe the baker just ran out of milk. I had a book to that effect as a kid. I’m serious. The cat knocked over the milk jug and the baker had to use water…

hortus delicarium esther

Herrard of Landsberg, Hortus Delicarium

The first art historical depiction of a pretzel is in Herrard of Landsberg’s Hortus Delicarium. The twelfth century book is an illuminated encyclopedia for convent novices. It’s also thought to be the first major illuminated manuscript written by a woman, holla! The pretzels in question appear at a feast of the biblical Queen Esther and King Ahasuerus. Were pretzels present in a feast in Biblical times? Probably not. But their inclusion in a medieval manuscript does perhaps prove that they were enough part of everyday religious life to earn cameos in monastic art.

Pretzels showed up in some northern European still lifes as well. While still life sought to depict everyday objects straightforwardly and realistically, they also contained unspoken reminders of time, mortality, and death (ha!). Unfinished feasts and the wreckage of earthly decadence were more subtle instances of vanitas than, you know, skulls, but would it not be a strong message to include the pretzel – a likely symbol of Christ’s death?

There you have it. That’s far more than I ever planned to write about the pretzels of art history. I hope I’ve made you a bit smarter, or at least hungrier.

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19 Responses to Pretzel Logic

  1. Chezjim says:

    Of course Berckheyde’s painting shows one of the simplest reasons the pretzel might have been made in its twisted shape: like the hole in round Swedish flat bread, it allowed the food to be hung.

    • Of course 🙂

      But how could I be morbid about that?

      • Chezjim says:

        This said, having opted for the more pedestrian explanation, I have to say that the Last Supper image posted by WTF Art History gets me thinking. The only other foods shown are fish and bread, both fairly iconic. If the artist went out his way to not only show a pretzel, but put it in the foreground, it’s tempting to think it had some larger significance.

  2. Elizabeth says:

    I love your blog! Just found it through wtf art history. 🙂
    I wish you had a facebook page. It makes it a little easier (for me) to follow many blogs in one place. Just sayin’.

  3. AJ Morin says:

    i thought it represented the holy trinity—-father, son and holy ghost.

    • chezjim says:

      That is one of many traditional explanations. I’ve read that it represented a kneeling choir boy too. There’s also a famous story about making a bread through which one could see the sun thrice. It has also been said that the pretzel replaced bracelets (there’s a complex linguistic link here) that were once thrown in graves.
      None of this is documented so far as I know. And remarkably few people point out the obvious fact, illustrated by the painting, that it makes the bread “hangable”. But short of finding some ceremonial or technical text that references its function, I doubt we’ll ever have a definite explanation

  4. Andrea Slonecker says:

    Hi there. I’m working on a cookbook all about pretzels, and I just came across this post. I’m interested to ask you a few questions about some of the comments you made here–all very interesting, by the way. Can you contact me directly, if you’re open to it?

  5. I can’t say I know much about the history of the pretzel itself. But you might be interested to know that, in Denmark (from whence I’ve just returned), all bakeries have an exterior sign to identify them to passers-by. This sign is in the shape of a piece of twisted bread which I think resembles a pretzel, topped by a crown. I’m not sure if this is down to the Germanic influence on Danish culture or not – or if the sign even is a pretzel, rather than a different type of confection that strongly resembles it in shape?

  6. Pretzels also resemble spectacles and, given their traditional and historical beverage pairing, may have been designed literally to be beer goggles.

  7. Charles says:

    Between a love of all things Pretzel’d, and high-minded musings of all things generally, I must say I love this blog! And what’s happening with that Pretzel book?? Makes me want to swap my morning coffee with a morning lager…

  8. Pingback: The Second Annual Starving Art Historian Gift Guide | The Starving Art Historian

  9. Starving musico-philosopher says:

    I love this. The town I grew up in is said to be the American birth place of pretzels, so of course there’s a pretzel museum, but it only covers American history with a nod to German and Czech bretzels (as they used to be called). Your post is much more interesting!

  10. Love it! My favorite is definitely the still life. And I had no idea pretzels had been around so long. Thanks!

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