Praying with pretzels

The salty, twisted treats that we call pretzels have their origin, it is thought, in a seventh-century European monastery—according to lore, either in southern France, northern Italy, or Germany. Allegedly a monk invented them by shaping scraps of leftover bread dough to resemble arms crossed in prayer over the chest. (Think upside-down pretzel.)

During the Middle Ages the church’s fasting requirements for Lent were stricter than they are today, forbidding the intake of all nonaquatic animal by-products, including eggs, lard, milk, and butter. Because pretzels could be made with a simple recipe that avoided these banned ingredients, they soon became associated with the season.

Lady Lent with pretzels
Detail from The Battle between Carnival and Lent by Pieter Bruegel, 1559, showing the gaunt Lady Lent (a man cross-dressed as a nun) riding a cart bearing traditional Lenten fare: pretzels, waffles, and mussels. He holds, like a lance, a baker’s peel topped with two herring.

The pretzel’s Lenten link, not to mention its popularity as a year-round snack both inside and outside monastic communities, led artists to sometimes paint pretzels into Last Supper images.

Pretzel at the Last Supper
The Last Supper, from a bishop’s benedictional made in Bavaria, Germany, ca. 1030–40. J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles: MS Ludwig VII 1, fol. 38.

Pretzels at the Last Supper
The Last Supper, from a Gospel Lectionary made in the Abbey of St. Peter in Salzburg, ca. 1150. Morgan Library, New York: MS G.44, fol. 80.
Pretzel at the Lats Supper
Fresco at the Church of St. Valentine, Termeno, Italy, ca. 1420–30.
Pretzels at the Last Supper
Martin Schaffner (German, 1478–1548), Last Supper, 1515.

Pretzels are also occasionally spotted in other religious contexts in art, such as in the fifteenth-century Hours of Catherine of Cleves, which contains an illumination of Saint Bartholomew surrounded by the snack—a possible allusion to his being a man of prayer.

Bartholomew with pretzels
St. Bartholomew, from the Hours of Catherine of Cleves, Utrecht, The Netherlands, ca. 1440. Morgan Library, New York: PML M.917, fol. 228.

So stop by your local baker’s for a pretzel sometime this season, or try making some of your own from scratch. (I do recommend using butter, if your fast allows it!) If you have kids it might be fun to include them in the baking process—or you could make pretzel necklaces with them by stringing the hard variety onto a piece of ribbon or twine. Introduce them to the X-shaped prayer gesture, if they’re not already familiar with it; it’s a gesture still used by many, though it’s universally less common than folded hands, especially for kids.

2 thoughts on “Praying with pretzels

  1. Victoria this is awesome. My kids and I make pretzels every year at the start of Lent and share it with neighbours (both the pretzels and the story) and with Christian friends we invite them to pray with us while or after we snack on them. 🙂

    Like

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