The Age of the Orange

It’s 1434. A merchant and his wife pose for a double portrait. Nearby, four oranges glow from their windowsill. The merchant is an Italian in Flanders, dealing in cloth and tapestries. The trees have made their way from China, offering up their fruit like miniature suns.

The scene, with the merchant’s bride and his fruit, is luxurious. Each orange costs one full month’s wages for a laborer.

Behind the merchant and his bride, the painter adds in a window, along with a narrow slice of the view—a courtyard and a tree heavy with ripe cherries. In the room there are no cherries. Just this astonishment of oranges.

Really, I’m not thinking about the oranges. I’m not even thinking about the merchant; I don’t give four mass-harvested Costco oranges for him. What does, or should, impress viewers about this painting is the wall. For none of the artwork done in the West, to this point, had ever been signed. But the artist signed this painting, tagging the wall with the phrase “Jan van Eyck was here.” Above the graffiti, he painted a convex mirror, and in it, the reflections of two figures. One seems to be van Eyck himself, raising his hand in greeting, presumably to the merchant, whose hand is vaguely lifted as if waving back. But the second figure could be anyone. I like to think of it as me, but you’re free to think otherwise.

Have I said how much I love this painting? On the two occasions I’ve seen it in museums, I returned to it again and again. It’s small and wooden, glossy, an early painting of Western daily life. The depiction of the people is not terribly interesting. But the mirror gets to me every time. It functions like a portal: as if Jan van Eyck looks through it and the centuries between us, and sees me. And I see him. The artist isn’t even the subject, yet I know of no other work of art from the Middle Ages that makes me feel so intimately connected with another person’s raw humanity.

Van Eyck signs his name, declares, I was here. Unsaid, added: This is how I see it. Also unsaid, added: I matter because I see. And in doing so, he asserts himself against the collective.

He matters. The merchant and his wife matter. The maid whom the merchant hired to feed his wife’s lap dog and empty the chamber pot tucked beneath their marriage bed: she matters. So does the servant boy who picks the merchant’s cherries. And me? My father was a machinist; my grandfather, a steelworker. After my grandfather retired from the mill, he unloaded crates for a neighborhood fruit market. Each time he came to visit, he brought me a navel orange bigger than my hands.

How much further can the growing handful of us ask the collective to suffer as we continue to need to matter?

In 1434, a half billion people lived on Earth. Now there are 8 billion of us, and we continue to push on the idea of mattering. I have what I consider a fortunate but ordinary American life—but you, Jan, you would be astonished. You would find my life more luxurious than the life of any king. You would marvel at the raspberries in February, at the bland pyramids of fruit in our supermarket displays.

Yet, how much further can the growing handful of us ask the collective to suffer as we continue to need to matter?

Here are my wedding clothes, my four oranges.

Here are my blossoming orange groves, a quarter of a million acres in California alone.

Here are the migrating laborers who pick my oranges until after dark, then sleep on mattresses on the floor, without running water, heat, or electricity. Here are the factories and canneries and the fuel emissions and the CEO paid 351 times the rate of the average worker, never mind the migrants.

Jan, four tired-looking clementines sit in my refrigerator’s produce drawer right now, and I can neither bring myself to eat them or to throw them away.

Or maybe you saw this too. I picture you brushing on another thin layer of crimson paint, looking at the merchant. The cherries are right behind you, you’re thinking. They’re right there.

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Orion‘s Summer 2022 issue is generously sponsored by NRDC.

Katrina Vandenberg is the author of two collections of poetry, The Alphabet Not Unlike the World and Atlas. Other essays she has published in Orion have been selected as a Notable Essay for the Best American Essays series and won a Pushcart Prize. She directs the creative writing programs at Hamline University and lives with her family in Saint Paul, MN.