Symbols and Meanings in Medieval Plants
Sometimes when looking at a painting, piece of medieval stained glass, or even the banner flying in the air at a large event, it can help to remember that in a relatively illiterate society messages were often conveyed by picture. Portraits were done not just to record a person’s appearance but to say something about them – how they wanted themselves to be remembered. The paintings we have of Elizabeth I, for instance, are invariably conveying messages : the ermine on her sleeve, the map under her foot in the Ditchling painting, the book in her hand. Similarly, in the exquisitely illustrated illuminated books that have survived, the floral illustration frequently serves a purpose as well as being decorative. The following list is not exhaustive: animals ,too, had meanings, and their inclusion in a picture will add further layers, but the following at least gives a start and shows the wide range of plants with symbolic meanings that might have been grown in a Medieval or Tudor garden
Fruit and branches are symbolic of the Virgin’s purity.
Almond fruits sometimes surround the infant Jesus as a sign of the Virgin.
Almond shaped crescent halo is known as a mandorla (Italian for almond). Usually this was drawn as a linear radiation surrounding Jesus or Mary.
The fruit, displayed with its surrounding thorny case but undamaged by it stands as a symbol for chastity. Thus we have modesty and piety triumphing over the temptations of the flesh, symbolised by the thorns.
Sometimes known as Our Lady’s Keys – therefore an image for Mary opening the Gate of heaven through her bodily ascension.
The name is literally The ‘Day’s Eye’ as it opens each morning and the petals close at night, also the Marguerite. Representative of the virtues: purity, innocence, loyal love, beauty, patience and simplicity. Often depicted in meadows which are flowery meads. Found in representations as far back as Minoan times on Crete and ancient Egypt.
Its size and spreading branches symbolise the strength found by faith.
Forget me not:
A legend tells of the Christ child sitting in his mother’s lap, and wishing that future generations could see them like this. So he touched her eyes and waved his hand over the ground and forget me nots sprang forth. Wherever they are found or represented it reminds the viewer of the strength of maternal love, especially the Virgin’s for our Lord.
These flowers are ambivalent in art as they can both kill and cure. A symbol for stateliness because of their height, their old name is ‘Our lady’s gloves’.
Heartsease or pansy:
Its three colours of white, yellow and purple gave it the name of herb trinity. The colours show purity(white), joy(yellow) and mourning(purple) which relate it to the Virgin’s life. Flower symbolism relates it to merriment. Pansy derives from the French for thoughts, because of its resemblance to a human face.
This plant is associated with infant Jesus as it is an evergreen and winter flowering. Also known as Lenten rose as it flowers very early in Spring
Thorns often used as a representation for Christ’s crown of thorns and thence as a symbol of his passion.
With flowers in white and blue, this is representative of the Virgin; blue for Queen of Heaven, white for her purity. The blade shaped leaves denote the sorrows which pierced her heart. Emblem of both France and Florence, its symbolic meanings include: faith, wisdom, cherished friendship, hope.
Evergreen, therefore one among many symbols for eternal life. Because of its ability to hook onto and cling to walls etc it represents fidelity, especially in marriage. It is also used to represent feminity as it clings to sturdier plants.
Both Christian and pagan traditions use lilies to denote fertility. It’s associated with the annunciation of the birth of Jesus by Gabriel. Symbolic meanings include the Trinity, the Virgin, royalty, chastity (white) , chivalry, purity and majesty. It frequently accompanies depictions of both the Virgin Mary and virginal saints
Lily of the Valley:
Tradition tells that it sprang from Mary’s tears, which is why the flower hangs down. Often it is depicted growing at her feet to presage sorrow.
‘Mary’s gold’ is a potent healing and pot herb. Symbols for passion and creativity, they were said to be our lady’s gift to those who had no real gold of their own. They were commonly grown as a healing and pot herb.
Symbolic of the silence of true virtue, or of a virtuous heart and language. In paintings of the Madonna it can mean the fruit of salvation in opposition to the apple of temptation. Sometimes represents truthfulness – a reminder to us to follow the way of truth. It frequently appears lying casually in a dish near the subject of a painting
The blue, star shaped flowers relate to the Virgin as the Star of the Sea (Boulogne)
Otherwise known as gillyflowers, these are also associated with springing from the Virgin’s tears and therefore presage the Passion of Christ. The Virgin of the Pinks depicts Christ holding them in his hand
A long lived tree, slow growing and hardwood tree revered by many faiths. Often used to symbolise steadfastness, endurance and strength of faith during trial. Occasionally used as a metaphor for Jesus.
Faithfulness in marriage. Possibly related to the fact that a quince has to be worked at and changed (cooked) to be enjoyed; so does a lasting marriage.
Representative of properties beyond its outward appearance. In Greek mythology Chloris found a beautiful, dead nymph whom she turned into a flower. Aphrodite gave her beauty, Dionysius, god of wine, granted her a heady scent, Zepyhr blew away the clouds to enable Apollo the Sun god to shine on her and produce life (flowers). By the middle Ages it represented the love of a beautiful woman. By the 12th c. It had been incorporated into religious ceremonies, eg Whitsun in France, formerly known as ‘Rose Easter’. Petals are showered in the ceremonial path. Red roses were adopted to represent the blood of Christian martyrs, White roses relate to purity, especially virginal. Myth suggests that before the fall of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden the rose was thornless, and thorns remind humans of their sins and fall from grace. Its fragrance reminds humans of the bliss they have lost. It is also associated with the working of a miracle. Rosa sans Spina, the thornless rose represents the Virgin as she is without original sin. It was also, more unfortunately, chosen by Henry VIII as the personal motto for his shortest lasting fifth wife, Catherine Howard. Pink roses have become linked with happiness, yellow with infidelity.
The pale colour of the flowers is supposed to have been absorbed when the Virgin draped her veil over a bush to dry. A valuable therapeutic herb, it is associated with improving memory and is used to symbolise remembrance, especially at weddings and funerals. It came to England with the Romans.
Flowering early, they were used during Candlemas celebrations. Their old name of ‘our lady’s bells’ indicates their use during the feast of the presentation of Christ in the temple(aka the purification of St Mary) in February.
Depicted growing at the Virgin’s feet, these are her fruit and represent the blessed souls in heaven.
Because of its low growing habit, and the way the flowers are under the leaves, it has because a symbol for humility, modesty or timidity and also of affection, faithful watchfulness. To the Romans it was a symbol of mourning and affection for the dead. Tombs were decorated with them on the festival of the dead (‘Feralia’) in February and at the ‘Violaria’ or feast of violets in March in order to secure the occupants’ peace after death. In the Middle Ages they were the symbol of faithfulness in love. In Christian symbology they represent the Virgin’s humility. Legend suggests that all violets were white until they shared her agony at the Crucifixion of her Son. Then their colour changed to echo her mourning. When combined with a painting of the infant Jesus they presage his death. The scent and heart shaped leaves refer to Mary’s constancy and modesty. One old name is ‘our lady’s modesty’.