Wednesday 5 October 2011

Signs, Symbols, and Meanings in Art (No.2)

Flowers, and their context, in paintings.
Flowers are the attribution of the goddess Flora. Flowers sprang from those who died of unrequited love;
Adonis - violets;
narcissi from Narcissus;
hyaciths from Hyacinthus.
Flowers may be used to indicate Paradise or Eden.
In the Middle Ages flowers had a Christian significance; red flowers represented the blood of Christ's Passion; white flowers especially the lily, iris and roses (without thorns) the Virgin's purity.
Flowers also had a numerical significance; five petals symbolised the wounds of Christ and triple leaves the Trinity i.e the clover and shamrock leaf.
In still life paintings, flowers may represent the impermanence of life as a memento mori.
images courtesy wikipedia
This painting by Simone Martini - The Annunciation and Two Saints (c1333) was once displayed in Siena Cathedral. 
Angel Gabriel usually holds a lily, but here it has been replaced by an olive branch - the symbol of peace, the lily being the emblem of Siena's arch-enemy Florence.  However, whilst Gabriel holds an olive branch, the lily does still make an appearance as the traditional symbol of purity and virginity.
courtesy Joel Garten via Wikipedia
In the above painting by Bramantino - Madonna and Child (c1508)
We see the vase of red carnations indicating Christ's crucifixion, and the apple being held for Christ by the Virgin signifying salvation and redemption from Original Sin.
image wikipedia
butterfly & fly
This painting - A Vase of Flowers by Ambrosius Bosschaert the elder (c1620) shows an impossible mix of flowers from all the different seasons. He wants us to know that the earthly loveliness of the flowers is transient. A sense of passing beauty and decay are also conveyed  by the fly in the foreground and the butterfly on the yellow rose. The shells allude to the newly discovered territories by the Dutch.
Signs, Symbols, and Meanings in Art (No.1) and (No.3) here.


  1. A very interesting story about the Siena painting. Artists in those days had to be so politically astute, as I know is still often the case.

    I have always been so surprised that the great Florentine artists were able to flourish at a time when the city/state was such a battlefield. It's a wonder that so many public artworks survived at a time when even families within the city were battling each other!

  2. Privileged people have always taken steps to protect their wealth by investing in art. The church was also hugely influential at that time with Pope's commissioning the best artists. As I am sure you are aware during the WWII art works were hidden away in mines and caves to protect them.

  3. These flowers are so rich in symbolism, like a language one must learn! I love the Florence-Sienna thing. Like singing You'll Never Walk Alone in the Manchester United home stand.

  4. Dear Kate - what a really clever comparison - Manchester via Liverpool. I have only given a very brief glimpse into the symbolism of flowers in paintings, as you can probably imagine it is extensive.

  5. Dear Rosemary,
    This is very beautiful and very fascinating. I would love to learn more about the language and symbolism of flowers. Last year I finished a large annunciation drawing (on a wooden hollow core door) which shows a contemporary Mary in an enclosed garden, on a lawn sprinkled with flowers which represent different spiritual attributes. The drawing is called "Say Yes." Here's the link for the posting about it......
    I love your blog. It is so beautiful. I'm so happy you discovered my blog, and led me to yours. love, Beth

  6. Dear Beth - what lovely comments, thank you. As you know I am comparatively new to the blogosphere, only since July, so your encouragement is appreciated. I do enjoy visiting your blog too and was particularly pleased to see the lovely painting you have done called "Say Yes" - you are very talented. The post I have done on flowers is really just an appetiser as the list of flowers is so long.


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