Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Botanical Imagery in European Painting

From the inception of Western painting, artists have depicted plants, flowers, and trees in images ranging widely in subject and purpose—from devotional images of saints and scenes from the scriptures, to portraits, still lifes, and subjects from secular history and mythology. 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. For example, the Venerable Bede (672/73–735), a Benedictine monk and scholar, likened the Virgin Mary to a white lily, the petals symbolizing her pure body and the golden anthers the radiance of her soul. Saint Bernard (1090–1153) later described Mary as “the violet of humility, the lily of chastity, the rose of charity.” These attributes are often depicted in scenes from the life of the Virgin, particularly the Annunciation, where a vase of lilies decorates the Virgin’s chamber (1975.1.113). A rose held by the Virgin also alludes to her role as the bride of Christ, as in the Madonna and Child Enthroned with Two Angels (49.7.9) by Fra Filippo Lippi.

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.

Because of the wealth and variety of source materials, a single plant often had various and sometimes conflicting meanings ascribed to it. Because of its bright red color, the carnation is usually depicted as a symbol of love. The Greek name for carnation, dianthos, means “flower of God,” and for this reason the carnation often appears in paintings of the Madonna and Child. A vase of carnations, indicating divine love, was a popular motif in northern Italian Renaissance painting (12.178.2). The carnation could also symbolize earthly love and marriage: in the Low Countries, a bride often carried a pink, the carnation’s relative, on her wedding day. According to folkloric tradition, the bride concealed the pink somewhere on her person, to be found later by the bridegroom. The association of pinks with love and marriage is clearly intended in portraits—usually commemorating a marriage or betrothal—in which the sitter holds a pink. A panel attributed to Hans Memling (49.7.23) and a portrait by Rembrandt (14.40.622) attest to this enduring association over a span of two centuries.

Many plants associated with major gods in the pagan tradition were later adapted as Christian symbols. The beech tree, for example, was sacred to Jupiter in antiquity, while in Christian imagery, it is an attribute of Christ. The tree derives its name from the Greek word meaning “to eat” because its nuts provided sustenance for ascetics; therefore, a beech tree reminds the viewer of Christ’s abstinence, as in Moretto da Brescia’s Christ in the Wilderness (11.53). The laurel was an attribute of the poet Apollo, who pursued the nymph Daphne until she metamorphosed into a laurel tree. The laurel was thus the crown of poets; it was also consecrated to the Vestal Virgins because of its evergreen properties, perceived as purity uncorrupted by decay. As an emblem of chastity and immortality, the laurel appears in religious paintings, especially those depicting the Virgin Mary and saints. Girolamo dai Libri’s altarpiece (20.92) provides an impressive example.

Though so often employed in religious painting as emblems of virtue and salvation, or as pictorial elements foreshadowing the Passion (as in the five-petalled sweetbriar depicted in a panel by Cosimo Rosselli (32.100.84), which alludes to the five wounds of Christ) and the Resurrection of Christ, the intricate and layered symbolism of plants just as often served chiefly to appeal to the humanist sympathies, learning, and wit of a cultured elite. A most outstanding example of this is Lorenzo Lotto’s Venus and Cupid (1986.138). Lotto, who was fascinated by emblematic devices, included several in this canvas, painted to commemorate a marriage. Far from the virtuous connotation of a rose in the hand of the Virgin Mary are the rose petals strewn in Venus’ lap and the wreath of myrtle—both attributes of the goddess and known from classical texts as emblems of venereal love. The latter is also a nuptial symbol. The ivy growing up a tree in the background, meanwhile, augurs marital fidelity. Lotto’s patron, probably familiar with these emblems, would have been able to “read” the image for its hidden meaning.