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…
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.