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Flower as symbol in art

"On the petals of flowers a letter is written..."

Exquisite still-lifes and marvelous plants on canvases: flowers do not only beautify the appearance, but also open secret meanings, and convey messages to the attentive researcher. Leafing through captivating Herbarium, we’re examining enigmatic garden of flower symbols.

Flower as symbol in art

Hymn to beauty of God's creation

Fathers of the Church were well aware that painted images have an enormous impact on religious feelings of believers. And despite the austerity of early scenes, Rose and Lily were among the first to receive their special attention.
Lily is the favorite of ancient rulers and emperors. With the rise of Christianity, its snow-white p

Lily is the favorite of ancient rulers and emperors. With the rise of Christianity, its snow-white petals have been entrusted to symbolize the purity of the Virgin Mary. The flower became an essentially unchanged detail in Annunciation scenes in European art.

Left: Jan van Eyck, The Annunciation (ca. 1434/1436). Oil on canvas transferred from panel.

Rose—the enslaver of hearts—has never been deprived of attention. Its deep red color and thorns eloquently narrated the sufferings of Christ. Woven together as white (symbol of Mary’s purity) and red roses marked the union of all Christians in their faith.

We can see it bellow, in oil painting "Rosenkranzfest" (The Festival of the Rosary or the Feast of the Rose Garlands) by Albrecht Dürer (1506).
Iris. White flower symbolizes purity, the blue one shows maternal grief.

Left: Gerard D

White flower symbolizes purity, the blue one shows maternal grief.

Left: Gerard David, Virgin and Child with Four Angels (ca. 1510−1515).

By depicting flowers in religious scenes, artists showed everlasting beauty of wisdom and generosity of the Creator, and thus, they reminded us of the impermanence of earthly life. You can read this Christian idea in the painting Flower Still-life with Crucifix and Skull (Munich, Alte Pinakothek) by Jan Davidsz. de Heem (1606−1683) shown bellow. As a rule, image of a clock or a skull was reminiscent of the transience of life. In a still-life with a different set of objects, the flower delivered this meaning by itself.
An ear of wheat, included in the bouquet, symbolizes the bread of Eucharist and Resurrection. For a man, like a grain, is reborn to a new life after the burial in the ground. Other painting by Jan Davidsz. de Heem "Bouquet in a Glass Vase" is composed with an apparent dominance of a scarlet poppy and a white carnation. A poppy reminded an attentive viewer that a living beauty is short. Poppy’s hidden seeds told him/her about death and oblivion. A white carnation symbolized clean and clear Christian life.
During the 17th century, secular symbols in art gradually have been surpassing. A red carnation once was a symbol of love and suffering, associated with the blood shed by Christ in Christian art. However, in 15−16-century portraiture, especially in double portraits, it accompanies couples and indicates on their engagement. This flower has become accepted generally, and to this day is attributed to the valor and courage, a revolution, and above all, to the French Revolution.
It’s quite interesting that if a symbol has several meanings, the one is chosen which corresponds to the general meaning of the painting. For example, a thistle implied engagement in Germany. Earlier, researches have considered this plant as a hint when examining the famous "Self-Portrait or Portrait of the Artist Holding a Thistle" by Albrecht Dürer. However, the inscription in the upper part of the painting states, "Things happen to me as it is written on high". And thus refers to another symbolic meaning of a thistle: it could also be seen as a reference to Christ’s Passion. So, the artist might have expressed his devotion to God by holding a thistle.
Calendar miniatures from the Franco-Flemish Book "The Very Rich Hours of the Duke of Berry" (Très Ri

Calendar miniatures from the Franco-Flemish Book "The Very Rich Hours of the Duke of Berry" (Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry) created in early 15th century captured flowers as endorsed attributes of April and of spring in general (in the later editions of "Months" or "Seasons"). The most exquisite image of the resurgent nature is depicted in miniature "April" by the Limbourg brothers: the ladies dressed in courtiers' elegant outfits gather flowers on the bright green meadows.

Left: The Limburg brothers, April (from Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry), ca. 1400s.

But what to do with "humble flowers"? "Self-portrait with a sunflower" by Anthony van Dyck looks quite surprisingly. The fact is that the sunflower has just been imported to Europe by the Spaniards from Peru at that time (this happened in 1569). So, for a century it has been grown in gardens out of curiosity. Noticing that the sunflower turns after the heavenly body, it was seen as a symbol of the sun (the Creator, the monarch) and destiny, as well as loyalty. Apparently, the plant depicted on the self-portrait of the court painter is an evidence of his unwavering devotion to his patron, King Charles I.

"I went out into the garden..." by Bella Akhmadulina

In general, "frivolous" flower painting emerged and spread throughout Europe due to the intensive development of gardening, both scientific and amateur. The flora that surrounded artists began to change from the middle of the 16th century. Trade and travelers have done their job! Oriental bulbous plants were first to restyle and transform the gardens, being added gradually with the New World’s wonders.
Botany gained independence, separating from the medicine, its former parent. So, artists have paid t

Botany gained independence, separating from the medicine, its former parent. So, artists have paid their special attention to floral art. Besides, scientists, most of whom worked in the Netherlands, ordered the plant drawings for research purposes.

Left: Maria Sibylla Merian, Flower still life in Chinese vase, ca. 1680.

"Wonderful guest from the distant Iran..." by Robert Rozhdestvensky

"Portraits" of flowers were also ordered by gardens' owners to perpetuate strange and exotic or simply beautiful flowers collected or grown by the possessor. Gardeners, occupied by cultivation and breeding of rare species, ordered catalogs with floral drawings to present planting material to their customers. These catalogues gained particular relevance during the notorious tulip mania. Speculation of tulip bulbs in Holland shot up into a madness at the second half of the 1730s. At that time, people could mortgage a house to get a rare tulip’s bulb of some new color. Not surprisingly, you can see tulips almost in every bouquet, painted in the first forty years of the 17th century. Mostly, albums with these flowers have survived to this day. One of these books, "Tulip Book" by Jacob Marrel (1642), comprises a sheet with tulips and their prices in 1635−1637, at the height of tulip mania.
Hendrick Gerritsz Pot, Flora’s Wagon of Fools, ca. 1637
Hendrick Gerritsz Pot, Flora’s Wagon of Fools, ca. 1637
Allegorical painting "Flora's Wagon of Fools" by Hendrick Gerritsz Pot (1580−1657), shows a cheap popular story, making fun of simpletons speculators. The wagon carrying the goddess of flowers (of tulips only) and her indolent companions, rolls downhill into the depths of the sea. Behind it, artisans plod. In pursuit of easy money, they threw their tools away.
The first easel still-lifes emerged in 1600s and were created by Jacob de Gheyn, Roelant Savery, Jan Brueghel, Ambrosias Bosschaert. They showed skillful compositions with various flowers in exquisite vases. Such bouquets seem to be painted from nature, but look closely: they composed from flowers blossoming in different seasons. Painters made detailed drawings in watercolor and gouache
Gouache (fr. gouache — “wet”) is a type of painting to use matte water-soluble paints. These paints are also called gouache. Gouache appeared in the 11th century, when glue and whitewash were added to watercolours to achieve greater density. Its consistency creates an opaque image, it can overlap the “bad” places. In the Middle Ages, book miniatures were created with gouache paints. Renaissance artists used them for sketches. In Russia, gouache has become popular among poster artists. In easel painting, it is used to design decorative elements, together with ink or watercolours. Gouache works well not only on paper, but also on canvas, plywood, fabric. The paint is first applied in a thin layer, and then overlaid more densely. There is art and poster gouache. The latter is characterized by high saturation. Read more
from nature, and then used these sketches in their various works.

Jan Brueghel the Younger

  • Jan Brueghel the Younger, A Basket of Flowers, 1620
  • Jan Brueghel the Younger Lilies, irises, tulips, roses, orchids, primroses, peonies and other flowers vase decorated with figures of Amphitrite and Céres, 1620–1620
  • Jan Bruegel the Elder and Peter Paul Rubens. Allegory of Smell, 1617-1618.
  • Jan Brueghel the Elder and Peter Paul Rubens. Allegory of Sight. ca.1618.
When scrutinizing exquisite bouquets, experts inquiringly read floral "letters". Oh, they definitely knew that orchids hide jealousy, suspicion and deceit. Iris has already ceased to remind of mourning Mother of God and began to sing hymns to spring and rebirth.
Lavender symbolizes life at countryside, the peasantry, and, at the same time, desire, sin, lechery, loss of innocence. But tulips transformed into a symbol of wealth, prosperity, trade. As we see, memories of their commercial turbulent past, have offered them new characteristics.
Dandelion, a symbol of the Christ Child (in Raphael’s tondo depicted left, at the edge of Joseph’s c

, a symbol of the Christ Child (in Raphael’s tondo depicted left, at the edge of Joseph’s cloak) was transformed into a touching reminder of childhood, longing for the past.

Left: Raphael Santi, The Holy Family with a Palm Tree, 1506−07.

Symbology has actively been used in art until the second half of the 19th century. You can see "talking herbarium" on canvases by Orest Kiprensky. "Poor Liza" holds a fragile red flower with her gentle fingers. It tells us about her love and fate.
Ballerina Ekaterina Telesheva, depicted as Zelia (the heroine of the ballet "The Adventure at the hunt"), shows an idealized bouquet of wild flowers, hinting on innocence of the theatrical image. The gypsy presses a branch of myrtle—an attribute of Aphrodite. However, myrtle has another symbolic meaning—a pagan converted to Christianity. And, perhaps, this is the most likely explanation why it is present on the gypsy’s portrait. As it is known, the Romani people take religion of the country where they live.
  • Orest Kiprensky, A gypsy with a branch of myrtle, 1819
  • Orest Kiprensky, Portrait of Ekaterina Avdulina, 1822
We can clearly see a sprig of hyacinth standing alone in a glass of water at the background of the portrait of Ekaterina Avdulina. Its white color is a symbol of moral purity, but at the same time it symbolizes death. Its petals are crumbling. This is a a textbook allusion to the transience of youth and beauty. The artist was sad: he had to leave the sunny Italy and return to St. Petersburg.

"Fly where the fun is, and make a garland of the best roses for the goddess Flora..." by Ruben Dario.

Flowers, given the idea of growth and fertility inherent in them by nature, been associated with female sexuality since ancient times.
Tamara de Lempicka considered calla lilies the most feminine and erotic flowers and constantly included them in her still-lifes. In paintings by Georgia O’Keeffe, critics almost unanimously saw erotic innuendos. A famous photographer Alfred Stieglitz considered art works of O’Keeffe as manifestation of the "eternal femininity".
Georgia O'Keeffe. Pink sweet peas II
1940-th , 101.6×76.3 cm
Georgia O'Keeffe. Canna red and orange
1922, 50.8×40.6 cm
Georgia O'Keeffe. Orchids
1941, 70.2×55.2 cm
Georgia O'Keeffe. Red Canna
1919, 32.5×24.1 cm
According to ancient Italians, a young goddess of blooming flowers, Flora, dominated over the world with the arrival of spring. Renaissance
The Renaissance is the period that began around the 14th century and ended at the late 16th century, traditionally associated primarily with the Italian region. The ideas and images of the Renaissance largely determined the aesthetic ideals of modern man, his sense of harmony, measure and beauty. Read more
revived the legacy of antiquity, and flowers surrounded cheerful Venus and Flora. Goddesses take part in scenes with allegories of months and seasons, senses and elements, representing spring, sense of smell or sight, earth or fire.
Sandro Botticelli. Spring
1485, 314×203 cm

"Your hands lie open in the long fresh grass,— The finger-points look through like rosy blooms..." by Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

By the 19th century, the symbology of objects depicted in paintings has lost its deep significance. And floral strokes may seem to us like colorful accents of an art-piece. However, Victorian era had developed its own specific language of flowers. Symbolism, reflected in "Veronica Veronese" (1872), a painting by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, includes a bird freed from its cage, chamomiles in a bird cage—locked energy, primroses—symbol of youth, narcissuses—reflection of thoughts.
Violets are a symbol of modesty and fidelity. Look closer at the portrait of Emma Hill, second wife

are a symbol of modesty and fidelity. Look closer at the portrait of Emma Hill, second wife of Ford Madox Brown (1820−1893). The artist puts in hands of his beloved, destroyed by alcoholism, a bouquet of withered violets. When he made this pastel, he wrote, "Now that she is lying in bed thinned with the fever she looks very pictorial and young as ever again."

Left: Ford Madox Brown, The Convalescent (A Portrait of the Artist’s Wife), 1872, pastel.

Oil painting "Lady Lilith" by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1868) is full of symbology. An artist and a marvelous poet, Rossetti delivers the idea of this canvas also in his "Body's Beauty" sonnet, that is inscribed on the lower portion of the frame
It has always been important for artists and art collectors how to frame their works of art. We can paraphrase Shakespeare and say,

“What’s in a frame? That which we call a picture
In an improper frame will look less nice.”

Or, perhaps, the picture’s message will be obscured by too ornate or too plain framing. Here, we present a retrospective journey into the history of framing and its evolution, with illustrations and an expert’s commentary. Read more

…And still she sits, young while the earth is old,
And, subtly of herself contemplative,
Draws men to watch the bright web she can weave,
Till heart and body and life are in its hold.

The rose and poppy are her flowers; for where
Is he not found, O Lilith, whom shed scent
And soft-shed kisses and soft sleep shall snare?..

Splendid poppy in a black vase symbolizes imagination and eternal sleep as well as pleasure and inevitability of death.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Lady Lilith
Lady Lilith
1873, 96.5×85.1 cm
Meaning of a primrose varies depending on its color. In the painting "The Daughters of our Empire. E

Meaning of a primrose varies depending on its color. In the painting "The Daughters of our Empire. England: The Primrose" (1887) by Edwin Longsden Long, its yellow primroses act like symbol of youth and love.

Left: Edwin Longsden Long, The Daughters of our Empire. England: The Primrose (1887).

Painting "Ophelia" by John Everett Millais is widely known for its detailed depiction of a river’s vegetation and plants on its banks. When painting the doomed Shakespeare’s Ophelia, in a lush death scene the artist showed all flowers with botanical precision following text word by word. Each plant is encoded with a definite meaning. Buttercups mean ingratitude, a weeping willow, bent over a girl, is a sign of rejected love, a nettle represents pain, flowers of daisies around her right hand symbolize innocence. Roses traditionally speak of love and beauty. Moreover, one of the tragedy’s heroes, called Ophelia a "May rose". A necklace of violets signifies modesty and loyalty, and so do forget-me-nots which grow on the banks. An adonis, much alike to a red poppy, floats around the girl’s right hand and symbolizes grief.
John Everett Millais. Ophelia
1852, 76.2×111.8 cm
Recommended exhibitions and views
Although flowers are supporting actors in most of today’s picturesque still-lifes, just try to listen to quiet conversation of Flora’s children: they will tell you many interesting things.
Written by Elena Nastiuk. The title uses quotes by Larisa Kuzminskaya. Cover illustration: Rembrandt van Rijn, Flora, 1634.