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Obscure Symbolic Meaning of Flowers in Western Art History

A beautiful rose, a white lily, a weed, a morning glory,  an orchid—all are charmingly decorative to the average viewer. For painters of the Gothic, Early Renaissance and High Renaissance eras, flowers were part of a rich visual symbolism. In a culture of restricted literacy symbolic imagery was vital in helping to spiritually enlighten the rabble. Narrative paintings, with their layer upon layer of vivid symbolism, provided instruction to the uneducated peasants who craved scriptural guidance. According to Charles Baudelaire "The whole visible universe is but a storehouse of images and signs to which the imagination will give a relative place and value; it is a sort of pasture which the imagination must digest and transform."

Paintings throughout Western history have been used as guides in illuminating the divine mysteries of Gods Holy Word.  Flowers of every variety are prominently featured in painting throughout Western art history.

Byzantine, Gothic and Early Renaissance paintings are rich in philosophical and Christian symbolism regarding flowers.

White Lily - a flower used as the emblem of the Virgin; the white color of the petals stand for the purity of her body and the golden anthers the radiance of her soul.  Also symbolizes the resurrection

Orchids represent jealousy, suspicion,  and deceit

Tulips symbolize wealth, prosperity, commerce, trade

The Rose - a flower which was used as the emblem of Mary's love of God.

 Lily represents purity, virginity and is often help by the Virgin Mary. The flower is also associated with St. Anthony's purity.

Iris represents Spring, regeneration, replenishment

Lavender symbolizes desire, vice, wantonness, loss of innocence (medieval prostitutes signaled their availability by wearing a sprig of lavender in their hair) village life, the peasant class

Dandelion is symbolic of innocence, childhood, nostalgia, longing for the past

Violet symbolizes courtly love, courtship, spring, innocence, virtue







The Meaning of Sacred Symbols in Paintings. Most prominently featured  symbols and their meaning:

The  Serpent

Good Shepherd

Adam and Eve




Virgin Mary


The Anchor

The Apostles



The Cross

Architectural Elements



The Saints









Household Object



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Richard Muther, The History of Painting, Henry and Co., London, 1896



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