Flowers and Their Renaissance Symbolism

By Lady Amie Sparrow
Published in The Bull, Newsletter for the Barony of Stierbach, Vol. 10 Issue XI November 2007

Those of us who create A&S entries often work with images of flowers. While the flowers themselves have intrinsic beauty, there is a world of symbolism behind them as well. This article is a quick reference for floral symbolism. The source of this information is “The Garden of the Renaissance: Botanical Symbolism in Italian Painting” by Mirella Levi D’ancona. Publisher: Firenze, 1977, Olschki Ed. This book is supposed to be the “bible” for Renaissance floral symbolism.

It is hard to know if the artisans of the Renaissance always had symbolism in mind every time they used a flower, but this information will give you food for thought when you choose flowers for your own works of art.

Note: “The Garden of the Renaissance” is a huge book in size and number of pages. Since I made this list of flowers as an addendum for the Elizabethan sweet bag class I taught at University, I focused only on the flowers found on sweet bags. I highly recommend this book if you’re looking for more floral symbolism not found in this quick reference.

Carnation – pg. 79 “The carnation was unknown in Latin antiquity. It was imported from Tunis to Europe in 1270, according to T.J. Rambosson, Historire et Legendes… The Greek name dianthos for this flower means “flower of God”. This meaning remained connected with the flower and for this reason the carnation was sometimes depicted in a vase beside the figure of the Virgin Mary, with wild strawberries among the grass of Paradise or in the hands of the Christ Child.”

Pg. 80 “On account of its flaming color, the red carnation was symbolic of love. It could either mean divine love, and therefore be shown as a substitute for the red rose, or it could mean earthly love.”

Pg. 81 “According to custom spread from the Netherlands, the carnation, or its variation, the pink, was worn by the bride on the day of her wedding and the groom was supposed to search her and fine the pink. For this reason the pink or the carnation became a symbol of marriage and were often shown in pictures of newly-weds or betrothed.”

Cherries – pg. 89 “The cherry tree was brought to Italy by Lucullus in 74 B.C. from the town of Cerasus (now Keresum) in Pontus, and hence it got its Latin name of cerasus.”

pg. 90 “On account of its red color and juice, the cherry suggested the blood of the Redeemer. Therefore this fruit was often depicted with a Eucharistic connotation, especially in scenes of the Last Supper, and the Supper at Emmaus.”

pg. 90 “On account of the sweetness of its fruit, the cherry was the symbol of the sweetness to be derived from good works.”

pg. 90 “The cherry symbolized Spring because it is the first tree that bears fruit after winter. Because of this symbolism the cherry became the fruit of the Annunciation and Incarnation of Christ.”

Columbine – pg. 105 “On account of its shape, which resembles four doves, this flower got its Latin name of columbina and it symbolized the dove of the Holy Ghost.” The columbine is also said to symbolize the innocence of the Virgin Mary, the sorrow of the Virgin Mary and fertility.

Convolvulus – pg. 108 “The convolvulus is also called ‘morning glory’ in English. The large white convolvulus sepium is called in English ‘devil’s garter’.”

pg. 109 “The convolvulus was considered an aphrodisiac.” It was also considered a symbol of humility.

Cornflower – pg. 113 “The Latin name of the cornflower, centaureum, originated from the legend that the centaur Chiron, poisoned by an arrow dipped in the Hydra’s blood, covered his wounds with cornflower and thus recovered. Because of this legend, the cornflower was believed to be an enemy of snakes, the Hydra being a snake. As in Christian symbolism the snake symbolized the devil, the cornflower became associated with Christ, who defeated the devil.”

pg. 113 “The cornflower symbolized Christ also because of another association of ideas. As their name suggests, cornflowers usually grown in corn fields, and since corn was symbolic of Christ, the cornflower became one of his attributes.”

pg. 114 “Because of its blue color, the cornflower was symbolic of heaven.”

Daffodil – pg. 124 “Daffodils were sacred to Proserpine, the queen of the underworld, and hence they were grown on tombs and had a funeral connotation. Homer wrote of a daffodil meadow grown in hell, where the spirits of the dead dwelled (Odyssey, 9. 538-40). Lucian said that the Manes, or shades of the dead, after crossing the Styx descended into a very large valley overgrown with daffodils (Menippus, 11, in Collected works, vol. 4; see also Comtesse de Genlis, La Botanique historique, p. 222).”

Grapes – pg. 159 “In antiquity the grapes were a well-known attribute of the god Dionysus (Bacchus), who was credited with their invention.”

pg. 159 “Grapes were also used in the mystery cult of Isis (Plutarch, Isis et Osiris, 37).”

pg. 159 “In the Old Testament, the people of Israel were compared to a vine laid waste and bearing no grapes. (Micah, 7: 1-2).”

pg. 159 “In Christian symbolism, grape or a vine leaf were an attribute of Christ, the ‘true vine’ because according to the Song of Solomon, 1:13: ‘My beloved is unto me as a cluster of camphire in the vineyards of Engaddi.’”

pg. 161 “The grape symbolized the Holy Blood of Christ or his Passion, according to Clement of Alexandria, who based his symbolism on Genesis, 49:11 ‘He washed his garments in wine, and his clothes in the blood of grapes.’”

pg. 162 “St. Augustine said that a bunch of grapes place in the winepress symbolized Christ on the Cross.”

pg. 162 “The sweet grapes symbolized the grace of Resurrection bestowed by the Lord on the Righteous.”

pg. 162 “The opposite symbolism, of the damning of the wicked, was also given to the grapes by Abbot Rupert.”

pg. 162 Grapes also symbolized the Church, the fruit of the Tree of Life, and the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden.

pg. 162 “In allegorical representation of the seasons, grapes were the usual attribute of Autumn, because Autumn is the season of vintage.”

Iris – pg. 185 “The Greek name for rainbow, iris, also identified the plant by that name because of many varieties of color its flowers can have (Macer Floridus, De virtutibus herbarum, p. D).”

pg. 186 “In pagan mythology, the goddess of the rainbow, Iris, was believed to be the messenger of the gods to lead to the underworld the souls of the dead, especially women. In Virgil (Aeneid, 4.694), Iris was said to have been sent by Juno to lead Dido’s soul to the underworld, and in the Aeneid, 9.803, Iris was said to have been sent as a messenger by Zeus to take the soul of Turnus.”

pg. 186 “Because of the play on the word iris, used to signify both the messenger of the gods and the flower, the flower came to symbolize divine message.”

pg. 186 “This symbolism of divine message was transferred to Christianity and the iris thus became the flew of the Annunciation. Some ecclesiastical writers said that the iris was symbolic of the Virgin Mary.”

pg. 186 “Because of its connection with the Annunciation, the iris was also a symbol of message, ardor, trust, and eloquence.”

pg. 187 “The iris was also an attribute of the sorrowing Virgin Mary. This symbolism originated from the fact that the Virgin’s sorrow at the death of her son on the Cross.”

pg. 188 “According to Berchorius, the iris was a symbol of divinity (Repertorium Morale, vol. I, p. 189). He based his interpretation on Revelation, 10:1, where an Angel is said to have appeared crowned with a rainbow (again the same play on the word iris was applied).”

Narcissus – pg. 242 “The flower got its name from the youth Narcissus, who fell in love with his won image reflected in the water and drowned while trying to embrace it. After his death, the youth was changed into the flew, its yellow center girt with white petals (Ovid, Metamorphoses, 3.341-510). Because of this legend, the flower symbolized self-love and selfishness. It also symbolized coldness and indifference because Narcissus was said to have been indifferent to the love of the Nymph Echo.”

pg. 242 “According to Carlo Pasquale, the Furies were crowned with narcissus (Coronae, p. 169). He gave as his source the scholiast to some versus by Euphorion, but the same symbolism was given by Sophocles in his Oedipus in Colon (683-85). Clement of Alexandria said that , according to Sophocles, the narcissus was the old crown of the major gods, meaning the gods of the underworld (Paedagogicon, in Migne, PG, 8.483).”

pg. 243 “The flower was sacred to Proserpina because she was gathering narcissus when she was abducted by Pluto. The narcissus also has a funeral connotation because it was believed that it took the color of mourning when Ceres mourned over the disappearance of her daughter Proserpina. Thus, the narcissus was used to crown the dead in antiquity.”

pg. 243 “Sometimes this flower was represented in scenes of the Annunciation or of Paradise, to show the triumph of divine love, sacrifice and eternal life over death, selfishness, and sin.”

Oak – pg. 250 “Long before the Christian era, the oak was worshipped in the ancient Celtic cult of the Druids and in pagan mythology it was considered the tree of Jupiter, to whom the temple of Dodona in Epirus , famous of it oak, was consecrated (Ovid, Metamorphoses, 1.106; Pliny 16.95.249-51).”

pg. 250 “In ancient Rome, the victors in music contests were crowned on the Capitol with oak leaves.”

pg. 250 “As often happened with pagan religions and superstitions, the ancient belief was retained in Christian symbolism… The oak was then considered as the Tree of Life, which died out but shout up a new branch of tremendous magnitude, out of which the Cross of Christ was made. There the oak tree came to symbolize Salvation.”

pg. 252 “Because of its solidity and endurance, and also because it can be broken, but it will not bend, the oak was a symbol of patience, the strength of faith, and virtue of endurance of the Christian against adversity (Hrabanus maurus, De Universo, in Migne, PL, 111.518-19).”

Additional meanings: Solid faith of the Saints, Time, purity of internal life and contemplation of Heaven.

Pansy – pg. 289 “In antiquity the pansy was sacred to Jupiter. It is a symbol of remembrance and meditation. it because an attribute of Christ. It was also the flew of the Passion of Christ because of its purple color and its five petals, which were taken as an allusion to the five wounds which Christ received on the Cross. The pansy also symbolized the Trinity because of its three colors. Hence it was also called ‘Trinity herb’ (Ambrosini, Panacea ex Herbis, p. 1; and Junius, Nomenclator, p. 160, “viola flammea”).”

Pea – pg. 293 “The pea got its Green name of pison from the city of Pisa, between the two mountains of Ossa and Helicon, where it grew abundantly.”

pg. 293 “The pea has several different symbolisms (Mundus Symbolicus, p. 636): humility (because it was considered a humble plan that grew toward heaven), virtue and holy works (as a useful plant which produced many fruits), instability (because it has heavy foliage and a frail stem), and the sins of this world (because it needs binding on account of its heavy foliage and fruit).”

Primrose – pg. 323 – “This flower is called primula, which means “the first”, because it is one of the first flews to bloom in Spring. As if often the case with Spring flowers, the primrose symbolized the Incarnation of Christ.”

pg. 323 “According to Ambrosini, the primrose was also called ‘St. Paul’s herb’, because St. Paul the Hermit was said to have used it to heal several paralytics (Panacea ex herbis, chap. 26, p. 39).”

Rose – pg 330-355 The meanings of the rose are too many to list individually. I will summarize: pride, triumphant love, flower of Venus, sorrow, funerary symbol, martyrdom, torments of the martyrs, the Immaculate Conception, purity of the Virgin, Coronation of the Virgin, Rosary of the Blessed Virgin Mary (15th century), attribute of Angels, Passion of Christ, blood of Christ, attribute of the Virgin Mary, attribute of Christ, patience Christ showed in his Passion, faith, papal benediction (ancient Catholic custom as far back as Pope Gregory I 590-604 A.D.), charity.

The five-petaled rose is called sweetbriar.

Strawberry – pg. 365 “The strawberry is symbolic of Paradise, the righteous man (Haig, Floral symbolism, p. 30), fruit of the spirit, noble soul born in humble surroundings, Incarnation of Christ, humility (when paired with violets), vanity, transience of this world, seduction, sensual pleasure of this world.”

Sweetbriar – pg. 368 “The sweetbriar is a variety of rose. Two varieties of roses were chiefly known in the Renaissance: the wild, five petaled rose and the cultivated one, with many petals. Of the first, the most commonly represented in art was the sweetbriar; of the second, the rosa centifolia.”

pg. 368 “Because of its five petals, the sweetbriar was taken as a symbol of the five wounds that Christ received on the Cross, hence of his Passion.”

pg. 368 “The sweetbriar could also symbolize the Virgin Mary.”

Thistle – pg. 375 “According to legend, an oracle at Locri had told Apollo that he should found a city where a wooden dog would bite him. When he was stung by a thistle, Apollo harkened to the oracle and founded a city on that spot.”

The thistle symbolizes earthly sorrows and sin, original sin, Passion of the Christ, the devil, attribute of the Virgin Mary, corruption (14th century psalter), salvation.

Tulip – pg. 390 “The flower got is name from the fact that it resembles a Turk’s turban. According to legend, it was said that a nymph, daughter of Proteus and of a Dalmation nymph, was chanted into a tulip when she tried to escape the love of Vertumnus (Boehmer, Plantas fabulosas, p. 4; he quoted as his source “Rapinus, Hort., Lib. I, p. II”).”

It also symbolizes the sanctifying grace of the holy Ghost, divine love, sorrow of the Virgin Mary at Christ’s Crucifixion.

Violet – pg. 398 “The violet is a well-known symbol of humility. According to the Vitis Mystica, a treatise attributed to St. Bernair of Clairvause, the violet was the flower of humility because it is a small plant, grows on low places, has a sweet fragrance, and has a dull color. Hence the violet symbolized the Crucifixion of Christ, which was the greatest sign of humility.”

One Response to Flowers and Their Renaissance Symbolism

  1. Pingback: Reframing Raphael: the Portrait of Baldassare Castiglione | The Frame Blog

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