Vegder's Blog

January 25, 2017

Gourds – a 2nd look – a 2nd irreverent look

On January 5, 2017 a fellow at the New York Botanical Garden wrote to compliment me about my very first post from May 7, 2009, the one about gourds. I was so flattered I still don’t know what to do. That man is an expert on gourds and he was complimenting me. Me! Imagine. That was good enough to get me to take a fresh look at gourds in art and society. But I have to tell you there is no telling where this post will lead us. One thought leads to another to another to another… Like Buzz Lightyear said: “To infinity and beyond.” Personally I still haven’t accepted the concept of string theory and a multi-dimensional universe because I don’t understand them, but I do buy into the idea that one thread leads to another and pretty soon I am 1) either caught in a gigantic, sticky spider web of facts and information or 2) I am completely entangled in the universe’s largest ball of yarn – metaphorically speaking, of course. So strap yourself in because this is going to be a fascinating and bumpy ride.

NOTE: Mostly I will post images first and then add the text later. Hopefully that will keep you coming back to this site often. Besides, I can only do so much at one time. I have to get some rest occasionally and always have to dig deeper in my research – for better or for worse. Be patient, it should all make some kind of sense eventually —– or not.

Vertumnus – without Pomona

Portrait of the god Vertumnus
Giuseppe Arcimboldo (ca. 1527-93) – ca. 1590
Skolkloster Castle, Sweden

Giuseppe Arcimboldo (ジュゼッペ・アルチンボルド) painted some of the most iconic and fantastic paintings ever. The one above is said to be both a portrait of the Roman god Vertumnus and the artist’s patron Rudolph II (1552-1612), the Holy Roman Emperor. This connection is made more credible when Arcimboldo’s Vertumnus is compared to the portrait by Hans von Aachen of the emperor. See below.

Hans van Aachen (1552-1615)
Portrait of Rudolph II, Holy Roman Emperor – 1605
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna
(Rudolph was a Hapsburg, one of the ruling families that modern terms
would be described as anything but photogenic.)

Rabelais, an author I highly recommend reading, even though he is hardly to everyone’s tastes, Rabelais, not his original name, a nom de plume, (1494-1553) mentions gourds at least twice in his classic volumes on Gargantua, the father, and Pantagruel, the son. Well, maybe he mentions them twice, maybe not. I read his writings in one particular English translation – gourds don’t always appear in other translations – and not in the original early 16th century French. I have them in the French but find it a wee bit too exhausting to try to collate the English with the French right now, so… Just take my word on this please, for now.

Now before I tell you about those ‘gourd’ references, let me point out to you, let me warn you who suffer from tender sensations and can easily be offended, that the word ‘Rabelesian’ is basically tantamount to the word ‘ribald’ or the word ‘salacious’ or the word ‘unholy’ or… Well, I think you get my drift. So, read the next few hundred words with some trepidation if you are brave enough or have the stomach for it. I do declare that you might want to keep some smelling salts near at hand or maybe a fan, at least.

Gargantua’s invention of an Arse-wipe in his fifth year

‘Then, as I was shitting behind a bush, I found a March-born cat; I wiped myself on him, but his claws
exulcerated my whole perineum. I healed myself of that next day by wiping myself on my mother’s gloves,
which were well scented with
maljamin. Then I wiped myself with sage, fennel, anise, marjoram, roses,
gourd leaves, cabbage, beets, vineshoots, marsh-mallow, mullein – which is red as your bum, lettuces,
and spinach-leaves. And this did very great good to my legs. Then with dog’s mercury, persicaria, nettles,
and comfrey. But that gave me the bloody-flux of Lombardy, from which I was cured by wiping myself
with my codpiece.

Then  I wiped myself on the sheets, the coverlet, the curtains, with a cushion, with the hangings, with a
green cloth, with a table-cloth, with a napkin, with a handkerchief, with an overall. And I found more
pleasure in all of those than mangy dogs do when they are combed.

The next passage is from Book III of Pantagruel, Chapter 8:

To prove that the Codpiece is the principal
piece in a Warrior’s Armour

Will you maintain, quoth Pantagruel, that the codpiece is the chief piece of a military harness? It is a new kind of doctrine, very paradoxical; for we say, At spurs begins the arming of a man. Sir, I maintain it, answered Panurge, and not wrongfully do I maintain it. Behold how nature, having a fervent desire, after its production of plants, trees, shrubs, herbs, sponges, and plant-animals, to eternize and continue them unto all succession of ages (in their several kinds or sorts, at least, although the individuals perish) unruinable, and in an everlasting being, hath most curiously armed and fenced their buds, sprouts, shoots, and seeds, wherein the above-mentioned perpetuity consisteth, by strengthening, covering, guarding, and fortifying them with an admirable industry, with husks, cases, scurfs and swads, hulls, cods, stones, films, cartels, shells, ears, rinds, barks, skins, ridges, and prickles, which serve them instead of strong, fair, and natural codpieces. As is manifestly apparent in pease, beans, fasels, pomegranates, peaches, cottons, gourds, pumpions, melons, corn, lemons, almonds, walnuts, filberts, and chestnuts; as likewise in all plants, slips, or sets whatsoever, wherein it is plainly and evidently seen, that the sperm and semence is more closely veiled, overshadowed, corroborated, and thoroughly harnessed, than any other part, portion, or parcel of the whole.

This passage continues and is quite a bit longer, and well worth reading. So if you want some more background on the importance of codpieces – without any further mention of gourds – in the text here it is: a brief summary: 1) man was born in an age of innocence and tranquility, i.e., before the fall, and had no need of codpieces. All creatures and plants, including the gourds, were put there for his pleasure. Then 2) came the age of Jupiter and all bets were off. Everything, from plants and animals to other men, became a threat to a man’s most tender and important parts. Even the gourds could do him damage if used as weapons to harm him. Hence the need of the codpiece. A really sturdy codpiece. Get me?

Vertumnus – with Pomona

Vertumnus was a Roman god who was dumbstruck with love for the beautiful Pomona, who as a nymph or goddess cared only for tending to fruit trees. Satyrs and gods and such all wanted her. Even Priapus gave it a stab, but failed. However, none were as devotedly persistent as Vertumnus, the god of the changing seasons, who could transform himself into any shape or type of being he wanted to be at any given moment. He would pass by her orchard and try to win her over. He appeared as a sweaty, pheromone-laden, jock of a field worker who would be carrying an incredibly  heavy load of grain. Nope! That didn’t impress her. Or, he might appear as a pruner of vines to try to gain admittance to her garden. Still nothing! Then he showed up as a dashing soldier who thought the length, girth, and width of his sword might impress her. Nada! Finally, out of complete frustration, he appeared in the guise of an old crone who chatted her up, saying things like “My, what beautiful apples you have grown.” She/he flattered Pomona long enough to be admitted into the garden where he/she could get close enough to kiss her passionately. Startled Pomona did not know how to react to the crone’s advances. Then the old woman, pointing out a tree with a vine growing around it, told Pomona a story about failed love. Vertumnus was absolutely eloquent in his telling of the story. The vine was nothing without the support of the tree. The tree was nowhere near as complete without the vine. At this point Vertumnus transformed himself back into the radiantly beautiful youth that he truly was. His beauty and eloquence combined had won her over and she agreed to marry him. If only we could all be so uncomplicated… and beautiful. If we could be, I wouldn’t be sitting here right now typing this for your own personal pleasures and musings. I would be doing what Vertumnus did. Sigh, if only.

Vertumnus and Pomona by Jean Ranc (1674-1735)
1710-20 – at the Musée Fabre, Montpellier

Hilton Kramer, art critic for the New York Times, wrote of this painting on November 2, 1975: “Certainly the silky light and sensuous color of Jean Ranc’s dazzling “Vertumnus and Pomona,” based on legend from Ovid…” Dazzling is right. I don’t know if I had planned a trip to Toledo, Ohio to their magnificent museum, just to see the exhibition “The Age of Louis XV: French Painting 1710‐1774” or not. That was too long ago when I and my best friend had made it one of our missions to see as much great art as possible while traveling on a very tight budget. But whether this was planned or accidental, I have to tell you, that exhibition and this painting in particular was an eye-opener. I knew almost nothing about this artist, Jean Ranc, but who cares – except that anyone who could paint like that deserves to be a household name even in this age of multimedia overload.

DON’T LOOK AT THE DEAD DUCK! Look at the actor’s robe – it has gourds on it –

Ichikawa Danjūrō VII (1791–1859) in the role of Konoshita Tokichi
1819 print by Kunisada
Metropolitan Museum of Art

The curatorial files at the Met say this of this print: “This print, one sheet of a triptych, depicts Ichikawa Danjūrō VII holding in one hand an umbrella and in the other a duck, shot with an arrow and clasping a letter in its mouth. Danjūrō wears a kimono with a design of gourds, an emblem of his family since the time when Danjūrō II was given a gourd formerly used by the famous haiku poet Matsuo Bashō to store rice.”

Another source gives a translation of the poem by this actor Danjūrō VII:

Hyōtan no
Sen naritaya no
Homuru to wa
Senryō yakusha
Senkin no haru

That we praise Danjūrō
With his thousand gourds
Is because he is
A thousand ryō actor
In a thousand-gold-piece spring

Shibaen Morizuna

There is another message hidden in this print which the casual viewer today could not possibly be expected to get or understand. The gourds were a symbol adopted by Hideyoshi in the 17th century. Since artists, both literary and graphic, were forbidden by the government to give clear references to earlier historical figures, they disguised them under thinly veiled names that their audience would get and yet still didn’t break this prohibition overtly. Such is the case here. Danjūrō is here playing a character named Hisayoshi – wink, wink – Hideyoshi. Wink, wink. For more on Hideyoshi and his gourd connection click on the gourd below to go to our very, very, very first post, the one that started all of this madness. Wink, wink.

We found this bottle gourd at the site run by Shu Suehiro at
One of our very favorite sites of all sites. You should go there sometime.
Especially if you are into plants. Don’t worry that most of it is in Japanese.
There is plenty of information in English too. You won’t be sorry.

Another Danjūrō-related print with a figure wearing a gourd-decorated robe 

Danjūrō VII’s face as it appears in the play Shibaraku is seen on the front of a kite. The child with the Chinese-style haircut is the one wearing the fabric decorated with gourds. This surimono was designed by Utagawa Kuniyasu (1794-1831).


Another Danjūrō VII print, this one is by Toyokuni II (1777-1835), clearly showed gourd forms outlined in a deep blue over a kimono decorated with an overall flying bat motif.

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

There are a couple things I feel obliged to point out to you. 1) The condition of this print is less than optimal, but it was the only example of this image which I could find. Despite the fact that I almost always try to provide you with the best looking, the crispiest images available, occasionally I feel the need to show you a somewhat battered image because it is the only one out there and it was too good to pass up. And 2) notice the setting of this print. Danjūrō is clearly represented on a stage with a painted, blue landscape backdrop with a prominent Mt. Fuji in the center – not meant to be missed. How do we know it is a painted backdrop? Just look at the straight line that runs across this scene at the level of the actor’s mid-thighs. Not fooling anyone, but it isn’t really meant to.

In the image shown below is a detail from a Kuniyoshi print of Ichikawa Ebizō V (aka Danjūrō VII) wearing a robe covered with gourds, a lot of gourds. Next to him on the ground is a blue and white bowl decorated with bats. There is that gourd/bat connection again.

Kuniyoshi from the Lyon Collection

In the third month of 1859 a surimono with a gourd vase and a lacquered box sitting on a cloth nearby with accompanying poems was produced. Surimono were generally a New Year’s print made for members of a poetry club, which often included famous actors who composed poems under their own nom de plume. Some scholars believe that the poetry may have been more important than imagery in those days. But the imagery often gives us a clues as to the message being conveyed.

Since the Danjūrō line was frequently linked to gourd references along with the three masu, i.e., symbol of rice measures, then perhaps the image of a square on a square lid below has something to do with a particular actor. Since I am unable to read the text – it would be so much easier if I could – then perhaps this print has a connection with the death of Danjūrō VII on the 23rd day of the 3rd lunar month of 1859 – April 25th in the Western calendar. The connection seems obvious, seems to be staring us in the face.

Ritsumeikan University

The Death of Buddha – with and without a gourd

The parinirvāṇa is the term used for earthly death or ‘transition’ of the historical buddha Shakyamuni – also read as Śākyamuni or various other spellings. This is the moment when the cycle of birth-death-rebirth(-death-rebirth-ad nauseum) is finally broken and there are to be no more births from then on. The motif of the reclining buddha indicates the parinirvāṇa.

Death of Buddha – Gandharan School – 2nd to 3rd century
British Museum

In the story of this event Shakyamuni is traveling about with his disciples, preaching the whole time. Finally he falls ill and lies down on his death bier. This was said to have been in northern India at Kuśināgara, “…at a location close to a river where two śāla trees stood…” After answering questions for the last time he lay down on his right side on the bier they had prepared for him, with his head positioned toward the north – to the left in sculptures and pictures – and he expired in the night. “It is said that, at his death, all living beings cried with grief, their lamentations echoing everywhere, and the śāla trees flanking the bier turn white.”


Gourds with other fruits and vegetables grieving the death of a daikon –

Jakuchū, the artist who did the painted riff on the parinirvāṇa, seen below, was a very devout Buddhist. In Japan ‘the transition’ was termed the nehan. While it might seem strange at first that Jakuchū would parody such a sacred moment, in fact it follows fully in line with the tenets of that religion’s belief system. It has often been said that bodhisattvas, i.e., Buddhist saints, choose not to attain buddhahood until every blade of grass has attained enlightenment. That means that everything, including gourds and fruit and butterflies have their own buddha-nature (busshō – 仏性) and are capable of that final transition.

Kaso Nehan-zu (Scene of Buddha’s Nirvana by Vegetables)
果蔬涅槃図 – by Itō Jakuchū (伊藤若冲: 1716-1800)
late 18th century – Kyoto National Museum

In this witty painting Jakuchū has replaced the buddha with a daikon with a split tail. His special bier is now a farmer’s woven basket. His disciples and all of the earth’s creatures are replaced with various types of gourds, a peach, eggplants, citrons, two types of chestnuts, onions, a lotus, a pear, garden peas, two kinds of persimmons, radishes, turnips, a horsetail, ginger, two kinds of cherries, arrowhead, two kinds of mushrooms, a red pepper, a yam, bamboo shoots and other assorted produce. The śāla trees are replaced by stalks of corn. (Traditionally the śāla trees had eight trunks. Here the corn has eight stalks.) “In the upper left he rendered a single quince, apparently to represent Lady Māyā, the Buddha’s mother, descended from her realm in paradise.”

I don’t know if this will come as a surprise to you, but Jakuchū came from a long line of well to do greengrocers. In fact, he was practicing that trade before he ever made it as an artist. But that aside, and just between you and me, Jakuchū is just about as good as they get when it comes to art. I have said this elsewhere and now I get to say it again. The man was beyond gifted. He was special.

Shibata Zeshin (1807-91) – vegetable nehan plaque – 1888
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

This next one is just plain luscious… yummy…

18th century inro – unsigned
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Hiroshige – drying strips cut from a gourd 

There must be a background story to this print, but I don’t know exactly what it is. What we do know is that it illustrates ‘famous products of Minakuchi’ at Station 51 of the 53 Stations of the Tokaidō. Will get back to you when I know more.

Hiroshige – ca. 1833-34
Chazen Art Museum

I am old now, but I still have the curiosity of a child. For example, take the Hiroshige image above: Where is Minakuchi and what the hell are those women doing? A little digging and I found out they are cutting and drying strips cut from a gourd. But why? Why? Why? I’ll tell you… or, at least I will tell you what I think this means.

Strips of gourd, possibly just from the white-flowered yūgao, are cut and dried into a product known as kanpyō (乾瓢) which is used in a number of dishes like soups and sushi. In Japanese Food and Cooking… it says, and this is a bit mind-blowing: “These dried gourd ribbons have an unusual role in Japanese cooking, they are used to tie foods together and look more like parcel string than food. The flesh of the calabah [sic?] gourd, a member of the marrow family, is thinly shaved, then dried  to a long ribbon, about 2cm/3/4in wide, and whitened by smoking in sulphur. As well as being tied around food, kanpyo is simmered with vegetables and meat. Before use it needs to be softened. Rub with salt and wash vigorously to break down the fibres and increase absorbency. It can then be boiled in water until soft and is normally cooked in a shoyu-based sauce, and used for shushi.”

I found this photo at one of the Wikipedia sites. It was posted there by Sakarai Midori.

Porcelain gourds and gourds on porcelain 

Nabeshima dish – 1736-1741
Victoria and Albert Museum

The curatorial files on this dish are a bit confusing to me, but I have been fuzzy-brained lately. One thing it did say that is worth passing on to you is that this is of a Arita type of KoNabeshima ware that is extremely rare – particularly in the West. Also they note that tied off ribbon with it trailing ends, in yellow and red enameling, may have been added in the 19th century – even though the technology at the time of the creation of this piece was available in the 18th century. We knew that!

Here is another Nabeshima piece (鍋島焼) with gourds on it. This one is from the 17th century and is oh so beautiful and elegant.

Tokyo National Museum

Wow! Below is an 18th century Nabeshima bowl with gourds, gourds, gourds. I love it!

Art Institute of Chicago
Posted at Wikimedia commons by Daderot.

Revisiting the horse emerging from a gourd motif –

Chōkarō’s horse emerging from a gourd – ivory netsuke
British Museum

Hideoki gold and ivory kagami netsuke
mid 19th century, but no later than 1889
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The term kagami refers to the shape of netsuke. It is shaped like a mirror.

The musicology of gourds 

Gourds aren’t just good for decorations or for quenching one’s thirst or as design elements. They can also be used as musical instruments. One of the best examples I could find is an ipu hula in the collection of the Met. My goodness it is elegant in its simplicity.

Ipu hula
– mid-19th century
Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Met’s curatorial files say of this piece:

“Large gourd drums called ipu hula are unique to Hawai’i. Ipu hula are fashioned from two ipu (gourds), a smaller one forming the top and a larger one the lower portion of the instrument. The gourds are specially cultivated to obtain the desired shape. When they have reached the appropriate size the gourds are harvested and the upper portions and contents removed, leaving the hard empty shells. The smaller gourd is inverted and cemented over the open top of the larger one with glue, formerly made from breadfruit tree sap, creating a hollow figure-eight shaped instrument. A circular hole made in the top allows the sound to escape.

Ipu hula are used to provide the fundamental rhythm for chants and dances, especially, as the name indicates, various forms of Hawaiian hula. It can be played by musicians of either sex. When playing the ipu hula, the musician sits and places a pad, typically made from folded cloth, on the ground to cushion the impact of the instrument. To mark the initial beat of each measure the player strikes the instrument vertically on the padded ground, producing a deep resonant tone. The succeeding beats are marked by holding the instrument off the ground and striking the side of the lower portion with the flat of three or four fingers, creating a tapping sound. Variants of this technique also exist. Produced continuously since precontact times, the ipu hula remains a vital part of contemporary Hawaiian culture. This example was part of the royal ensemble of King Kamehameha IV (1854-63).”

Cervantes and the poetasters – Vegder and the poetasters

Before I moved to Port Townsend a friend of mine, an extremely literate friend, said something like: “Oh! Great! Port Townsend is a center of poetry in this country.” Little did my friend know how off-putting I found most contemporary poetry. Of course, there are poets and then there are poets, but… Besides, as it turns out, nearly everyone in this town seems to think they are a poet – except me. Years ago, a fellow I know asked me if I wanted to go to dinner at a place that offered an open mike on a particular week night. I agreed. Big mistake. Basically the music was fine, but when it came to a couple of poetry readings – one in particular… Well, no Hollywood script could have done it justice. It was pure torture. But I have moved away from my original point: Cervantes on poetry and gourds.

Cervantes wrote a satirical poem, Journey to Parnassus (Viaje del Parnaso), in which he is travelling to see Apollo. Mercury meets him on the way and puts him on board a ship made of different kinds of poetry. His fellow travellers are well-known and lesser-known poets – to the point of overcrowding. Eventually it is even raining poets, mostly bad poets. Neptune creates an enormous storm intent on drowning most of them, then Venus intervenes and changes many of them into gourds so they will not sink. That is all you need to know for now. Here is the pertinent passage, in Spanish, of course. I won’t even attempt a translation. All I care about is that you notice that the sea around the ship has been transformed into a “sea of gourds’,  unsinkable gourds.

En un instante el mar de calabazas
Se vió quajado, algunas tan potentes,
Que pasaban de dos, y aun de tres brazas.

Astronomy is far out man! The Calabash Nebula – aka the Rotten Egg Nebula

Anyone who has read my posts has realized by now that my mind goes everywhere. I would say that I am a jack of all trades, but a master of none – except that I am not sure about the jack part. I am, however, interested in just about everything under the sun and everything else, too. Not everything, to be sure, but… I do like reading about and rarely understanding news about astronomy and cosmology. I take a little time out each day to read about science and today – January 30, 2017 – did not let me down. I ran across an article about the so-called Calabash nebula or in astronomy-speak OH 231.8+04.2. It is also called the Rotten Egg nebula because it is surround by sulpher compounds.

It is in the constellation Puppis – I didn’t even know there was a constellation Puppis – and is about 5,000 light-years away. It is a star which has blown up and is – that depends on what the meaning of is is – sending out hot jets of material and gases traveling apart at approximately 1,000,000 miles per second. It can’t maintain this forever and will eventually form two different planetary nebula. But for now it looks like a giant yellow calabash. That is why I have decided to include in this post. How fortuitous, eh?

This is a NASA photo taken by the Hubble telescope.
It was posted by Judy Schmidt at

An iteration: come back soon and come back often. I have just begun to post. Thanks!

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