This is a Pineapple.
“Love is like a pineapple, sweet and undefinable.” Piet Hein.
Somebody this week saw the title for my address: ‘This is a pineapple’, and asked me ‘So what is your address going to be on?’ – I told him it was going to be on pineapples!
There is a lot to say about pineapples, hence why they merit an entire address. This will be my Historical and Theological treatise upon the Pineapple. We begin where pineapples began, in South America, where they were initially cultivated by the Mayans and the Aztecs. Apart from this little fact, nothing much is known about the pineapple until it was discovered by Europeans.
One of those facts we learned when we were at school was that the Americas were discovered by the explorer Christopher Columbus. This is now thought to be a bit dubious – before Columbus got there a Viking explorer called Leif Erikson discovered America, perhaps even Chinese explorers got to American before Columbus too, and of course the American natives were there long before that, so who can we say discovered the Americas?
But Christopher Columbus does have at least one notable claim to fame – he was the first European to encounter the Pineapple in 1493. The Pineapple gets its name from its exterior which resembles a pine cone, and its interior which resembles the texture of apples. Hence Pineapple.
In the following centuries Europe became obsessed with the Pineapple. They proved incredibly difficult to grow in Europe, and so the only supply of Pineapples came from across the ocean. Limited supply drove up the price, and high prices resulted in the pineapple having great social and cultural significance. It was the food of royalty. To offer your guests a pineapple was an act of great generosity and warmth.
In the Americas, sailors upon returning home would pierce Pineapples onto their fences or set them upon their porches. This represented a successful voyage and welcomed friends to come and visit. In Europe and in America the Pineapple came to symbolize all these warm feelings of friendliness, hospitality, and generosity. And so, Pineapples began to be used in architecture, chiseled masonry and carved wood; adorning gate posts, as is the case up at Christchurch Park (here in Ipswich), in doorways, upon garden plinths, and so on…
But the significance of the Pineapple goes further still. They have a wholly Christian theological significance. The primary stalk of each pineapple plant dies after producing a single fruit. (Or at least this is was they believed happened back then!) The plant dies so that the fruit can live. There is clear Christian symbolism at play here; as it was said in our reading from Thessalonians – he died, so that we may live. It also plays into the idea that creation itself declares the majesty of God, even in the untamed Americas here is a symbol of life coming out from sacrificial death. This theological understanding is why Sir Christopher Wren incorporated Pineapples into the architecture of the churches he designed. The most notable example of this is St. Paul’s Cathedral, with its familiar dome which characterises the London skyline; one of Christopher Wren’s initial designs however, was for the dome to be crowned with a 60 foot tall stone pineapple.
As incredible as that sounds, sadly it did not come to pass, but Pineapples did find their place upon St Paul’s anyway. The two western towers of the Cathedral have upon them a golden pineapple each. Sir Christopher Wren, it is fair to say, had a thing for pineapples. When he was asked to provide an architectural survey for St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle, he did so, throwing in for good measure a recommendation that they built forty-eight stone pineapples at the west entrance. They didn’t.
So, now for a bit of fun conjecture on my part: it is believed that this pulpit was carved by the master carver Grinling Gibbons, and if not by him directly, by a pupil of his. There has even been speculation that Sir Christopher Wren might have had a hand in this building too. You know, what would give this theory even more weight would be if there was a pineapple in this space? After all, just prior to the Meeting House being built Grinling Gibbons was employed by Christopher Wren to carve the choir stalls at St. Paul’s Cathedral.
This is a Pineapple. Here above this very pulpit is a carved wooden Pineapple. Sir Christopher Wren’s pineapple passion manifests in this very space. The case is made even stronger by the fact that (as far as I am aware) there is no other example of a Grinling Gibbon’s Pineapple. If my speculation is all correct, then it follows that the original symbolism being employed in the carving of this Pineapple was primarily the Christian theological one, and secondarily, as a symbol of friendliness, hospitality, and generosity.
So why then is it not an enduring Christian symbol, or still held today in such high esteem? Why has it lost its glamour? It’s surely because of price; when this pineapple was carved, to buy a pineapple would have set you back at least £5000 in today’s money. It was such an expensive item that some shops in London even rented out pineapples for the day to add gravitas to room displays. As the 20th century dawned, large commercial plantations were established in the tropics and steam powered ships made transportation far easier. As a result the price of pineapples plummeted – these ones here cost me £1.50 each.
Today the value of something, or the quality of something, is not necessarily reflected in the cost of something. The pineapple is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow, but its price has determined the value we place upon it. The industrial revolution has skewed our ability to recognise the worth of many things; if things are cheap it’s difficult to get too worked up about them.
The fact that today everything has its price takes over how we perceive material things. We deceive ourselves into believing more expensive things are really more desirable and valuable to us personally. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says ‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven’. I think Christopher Columbus must have been like a child when he first encountered and tasted the pineapple in the 15th century. Never had anyone experienced this delicious food; to him it must have been like manna from the gods, glorious and inexplicable.
In becoming like little children, we can appreciate afresh the intrinsic value of things, not the value placed upon them by fashion or economic forces. We can even see the Pineapple as it was once seen, as Sir Christopher Wren saw it, as a divine object.
In conclusion then, all hail the pineapple. It is an amusing thought that across the country people are gathering in churches, with a cross looking down upon them - while we gather together under a pineapple. This Pineapple in many ways captures what we are, what Unitarianism is. It is a symbol which arose out of Christian Theology, a symbol which, generally speaking, represents warmth, hospitality, and generosity, and a symbol which challenges us afresh to appreciate the inherent worth of things, to cultivate a deep appreciation for the beauty of life. That sounds like a pretty good definition of Unitarianism to me.