Research – Flowers in art

Having looked at the idea of using flower pattern and imagery in my work as a motif, I thought I should spend some time looking into the symbolism between various flowers. Flowers have been used in art as symbols throughout the gothic and the renaissance periods, and provided layers of narrative to the paintings of the time.

"Young Woman with a Pink" - Hans Memling - 1485-80

“Young Woman with a Pink” – Hans Memling – 1485-80

Surprisingly, it seems as if many of these meanings have engraved themselves into my subconscious already, prior to any research having been done. I suppose this is a testiment to the power of visual language in art having embedded itself into culture. For example, we know that roses (specifically red roses) represent passion, and that white roses show purity and innocence in contrast. However, yellow roses are used to show infeidelity and jealousy. White Lillies, as well as the white rose, are often used to represent purity, chastness and the Virgin Mary. Lillies are also often linked to the notion of motherhood.

There are also many other interesting flower meanings that I was not previously aware of. There are several which are of particular relevence to me, in terms of my project, whereas many of the flower symbolisms in western art relate directly to Christianity, which is not relevant to my work. For example, the dandelion is a symbol of childhood, nostalgia, and longing for the past, which could be incredibly relevent in expressing my sense of loss in terms of my own childhood and has the very obvious and interesting imagery of seeds which are blown away. Conversely, Lavender symbolises desire and loss of innocence, however this was also used as a symbol by medieval prostitutes by wearing it in their hair, which I’m not sure I want an association with. But nonetheless, I think it could tie in well with the notion of the Dandelion and childhood then coupled with new desires and loss of innocence. Rosemary is used in weddings as a symbol for fidelity and faithfulness, this could be used in terms of self as representing integrity and loyalty. Pink carnations are associated with motherhood, again the association comes from a religious basis with the virgin mary, but it is a link still made today by the layman and is the emblem of mother’s day. The forget-me-not, unsurprisingly is a symbol of rememberence, although the story behind its naming varies wildly from different sources. The flower of the Hawthorn represents hope, and was also used to fend off evil spirits in ancient Rome.


While I am sure there are very many more flowers with interesting and pertinent meanings, I am coming up against a few problems in my research. Firstly, the meanings of each flower and their representation and use, can vary wildly throughout history and depending on context. Do I use only the symbolism of flowers in classical renaissance oil paintings? Or do I use the meanings of flowers in British folklore? Or perhaps modern day meanings and symbolism of flowers used in weddings, funerals and bouquets? Secondly, there is the issue of trying to make these flowers into a transitioning image. Initially in my mind, this seemed a simple task of creating a pattern of flowers and having the flower heads interchange from one to another. I failed to account in this plan for the fact that many flower heads are vastly and distinctly different in shape, size and form from one another. For example the difference between a daisy and a lavender, one cannot simply be swapped out for the other.

Perhaps in this case, it would be better to use one species of flower, shown in various states across the medals. However this begs the question of, what flower should be used? Given that every flower is loaded with symbolism of one form or another, the link to those qualities will always be made. However the set of qualities each flower is linked to is often very narrow, and so if I were to use say a white lily, for purity, that begs the question of what do I do when those qualities aren’t present in what I’m trying to express? Maybe at certain points in a person’s life they are pure, others they are not, what then? The lily could become withered, but then that gives the impression that purity (or whatever characteristic is being depicted) is the only quality of importance, and when that is gone there is nothing else left to show. However the entire notion that I am trying to explore with these medals is how the different qualities of a person can grow and change, some aspects may die or retreat, while others take their place, some may resurge later. Using a single flower would not be fitting for this.

While not entirely off the table, and with a distinct lack of any better ideas, it is looking that there are a lot of obstacles in terms of using flowers as imagery in my medals.


Sources: Folklore and Symbolism of Flowers, Plants and Trees – Ernst and Johanna Lehner

Art Symbols Dictionary: Flowers and Plants

Obscure Symbolic Meaning of Flowers in Western Art History


2 Comments on “Research – Flowers in art”

  1. […] father due to class, and their plight to be together represented by various elements in the image. As with much traditional art, it is interesting to me that the image contains an entire narrative through the use of imagery and […]

  2. […] link to using flowers as imagery in my work. While it would still be feasible and there is a long history of using flowers in art, I still feel that this is not a strong enough link to the message I am trying to express to the […]

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