Presented by HL Sannan Cairngorne of Hauksgarðr
October 9, 2010
The Victorians called it Floriography. We call it the "Language of Flowers." To the Ancient and the Medieval mind, it was their gods, or God revealing himself or herself to them. We have fairly standard lists of meanings nowadays between the internet and florists. Victorians used to carry lists around with their meanings and they could vary from city to city and country to country. It wasn't much better in medieval times, but there was a bit more agreement on what meanings were attached to certain flowers and what they represented or who.
The use of botanical imagery in painting proliferated especially in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, as artists became increasingly interested in the realistic depiction of objects from the natural world; the purpose of this imagery was often, however, twofold. Beyond their decorative properties, plants and flowers usually had a symbolic meaning or association that related to the subject of the painting. Thus, a plant could be depicted either as an attribute, giving clues to the identity of the subject or sitter (as in 43.86.5), or as providing a moral or philosophical annotation on the subject.
Botanical symbolism has its origin in the literature of antiquity, where plants are often used in metaphors for virtue and vice. In classical mythology, human beings are transformed into plants as a reward or punishment, as in the story of Narcissus, the vain youth who fell in love with his own reflection and was changed into a flower that bears his name. Certain plants are also mentioned as attributes of gods and goddesses: grapes for Bacchus, god of wine, and corn or wheat for Ceres, goddess of agriculture. Classical texts on farming and natural histories by Pliny, Cato, and Lucretius also recorded some of the traditional lore associated with plants. Many of these ideas and associations were passed on to scholars and artists during the Renaissance, a period of revived interest in classical texts.
Religious writings also provided a wealth of plant symbolism. The Bible and the Apocrypha contain many references to trees, fruits, and flowers in moralizing similes and parables. The Song of Solomon is particularly rich in allusions, as in a verse proclaiming "I am a rose of Sharon, a lily of the valleys," possibly referred to in Procaccini's Madonna and Child with Saints Francis and Dominic and Angels (1979.209) by the inclusion of a vase of roses. Christian writers from the early medieval period through the Renaissance also used botanical imagery as a means of explaining and interpreting religious beliefs.
A third major source for plant symbolism was the medieval herbal. Herbals described the natural properties of plants, the method for their cultivation, and their use in cooking and in medicine. These properties, as well as the plant's shape, color, taste, smell, and season of blooming, usually lent themselves to a moral connotation: the poisonous hemlock represented evil and death, while the clover, with its three leaves, was a symbol of the Holy Trinity. Used also as a salve against snake bites (according to Pliny), the clover was sometimes regarded as an emblem of Salvation, where the bite represented Original Sin, encouraged by a serpent in the Garden of Eden. (1)
(1) Source: Botanical Imagery in European Painting | Thematic Essay | Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History | The Metropolitan Museum of Art http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/bota/hd_bota.htm Jennifer Meagher, Department of European Paintings, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
There are hundreds of examples of botanicals in artwork in the middle ages. Looking at it again with a fresh consideration to another layer of symbolism or meaning that the artist meant for there to be extant in their work brings more depth to the appretiation of what the emotion is they are trying to convey. The following pages are a table with a few flowers to give you a start at identifying some of the flowers and herbs that might have some meaning when you are looking at a work of art and just might be telling you a lot more about what the artist is trying to say.
Source: wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Language_of_flowers
http://www.earthlypursuits.com/FlwrsPer/FlwrSent.htm (list of meanings from 1840's)
Period source referenced by marygardensmain.html site for botanical naming in Middle Ages
"De Plantis A Divis Sanctisve Nomen Habentibus" by Johannis Bauhin, Basil, 1591