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The Voice of Flowers


Bouquet by O.M.Braida©1995

Sweet Youthful innocence
Hear my message of truth.
Chaste-full sentiments
Adoration of youth
No mark of pain
Blessed be the morrow
When joy is the refrain.

Excerpt from “Ten Steps – A Course in Botanical Art & Illustration” by O.M. Braida, Volume 4

    The creation of floral arrangements that give messages, whether in decoration or in a painting, appear before the middle ages. During the Renaissance we see a strong example of this in the paintings of many artists.  Amidst my collection of Florida plant books, I place my hand on two books of paintings by Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) and Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510).

In the first, we see a work by Leonardo entitled Ginevra de Benci where he inscribed, “Virtue Adorns Beauty” on the back of this portrait. Ginevra means ‘Juniper’ which stands for virtue, plus in the original drawing Ginevra holds a Juniper branch in her hands.

And, in the two paintings by Botticelli Birth of Spring and Primavera, so glorious to behold, remind me once again how the language of flowers is present in so many famous paintings.  In these paintings, we see Botticelli profess that ‘Pure Love is Victorious’ by including Laurel, Myrtle, Cornflowers and Roses in both paintings.  Now, keep in mind that nowhere was this proclamation stated except in the very meaning of the flora subjects that highlight his work. I have also never read this anywhere so perhaps I am mistaken.

However, careful analysis of the paintings will show us the temporal Venus in Birth of Spring become the sacred Venus mistress of all Gods and Goddesses in Primavera. In the first, Grace comes to Venus in a dress adorned with Cornflowers.  She is the symbol of hope and faith and is about to adorn Venus in a robe of flowers and fruit.  Soon to be the Venus Flora and Pomona, Goddess of Love and Beauty, in a setting of Laurel (proclamation of victory) and Myrtle (symbol of love and fidelity), Grace brings a message that Pure Love is Victorious.   But, because the cape is not draped and because Grace is wearing a dress of Cornflowers, the message is not a proclamation, but rather a message of hope.  It is a prayer for the constancy of pure love.

In the second painting, Primavera, the sacred Venus standing central focus again, is now patron saint of forces and elements and adorned with the gifts of Grace, she stands ready to triumph over the four seasons. In other words, in Genesis 1, verse four, when God first approves of creation and divides light from darkness, He establishes cycles, an ever-changing sameness. Botticelli conveys this great theme of the natural world through mythology, theology, and the language of flowers.

And God saw the light, that it was good: and

God divided the light from the darkness. Genesis 1:4

    Nicolas Robert (1614-1585) was the son of an innkeeper.  He became the most accomplished botanical illustrator in Europe in the 17th century and one of the eight Peintre du Roi of the French court.  His rise to fame  was the result of a commission received in 1634, when Charles de Sainte-Maure, future Duke of Montausier gave his beloved Lucine-Julie d’Angennes (1607-1671) a collection of verses. Prepared in collaboration with the most fashionable poets of his time, these verses exalted Julie’s beauty and other qualities through the theme of flowers.

In the early 18th century, a different type of flower language was introduced to Europe. Based on a Turkish ‘secret language of flowers,’ it became popular to send a Persian ‘selam’ (a bouquet whose symbolic arrangement forms a code) to communicate feelings of attraction, affection and love! The Turkish system relied more on rhyme and attached meanings so that the verse could be remembered.

Lady Montague, wife of the British ambassador in Constantinople, in 1718 looked into the language of flowers.  She decided that every flower had a meaning and so it began.  Soon a list of meanings were attached to flowers in several languages.  Countries that contributed to the language of flowers include China, Japan, Middle Eastern, Greece and Italy.  Mythology, folklore, literature, and plant characteristics also contributed significantly to the meanings attributed to each flower.  There were more than one set of meanings.  This complicated things a bit until 19th century Victorian era when the inspiring message of nature’s beauty was further enhanced by attaching a meaning to every flower and documenting it as the “Language of Flowers.”   Thus, in Victorian times tussie-mussies became an art forms and courses in flower appreciation were taught in schools.

Many botanical masters of the past created their own volumes of florilegia based on need or request, thus creating their own message.  The language of the specimens they collected and the drawings they made were based on a particular theme.  In Ida Pemberton’s book, “Drug Plants, How They Grow, How They Heal” her motivation was to create a collection of healing plants.  The inspiration for this work was personal.  After the death of her child, Ida Pemberton’s remarkable work was the result of her grief and her need to seek out answers for better health.

“Love’s RemindRosa sp. by O.M. Braidaer”

By O.M. Braida©1996

And when I painted thee,
I lost myself amidst thy folds…
Eight layers upon your petals,
Each a prayer for my beloved.
Half as many on your leaves,
And fewer still on your thorns.
For I will dwell mostly on sweetness,
And you will remind me
Always of love.

In a botanical art composition, the language of flowers can be as simple as a single subject and a poem that expresses its meaning like the rose above.  It can also be a collection of flowers that once combined send a memorable message, or, recite a prayer as in “Bouquet”  above. Language of Flower compositions can be direct or abstract.  They can pay tribute to a person, an idea, a philosophy, a principle.  The message can be satirical, humorous, prayerful, pay homage or contempt. It can also tell the biography of the person for whom it is created.  Basically, it is no different from writing a story or song, although it has been said, “A picture is worth a thousand words.”

Besler Sunflower

Sunflowers are considered the happiest of flowers.  Their meaning is symbolic of spiritual faith, and worship because we follow our belief system as the sunflower moves to face the life-giving rays of the sun.

The sunflower is the Greek symbol of Clytie (a water nymph) who turns into a sunflower after grieving over the loss of her love Apollo. Clytie (as sunflower) always faces the sun, watching for the return of Apollo’s chariot so she can be joined again with her love.

In Chinese symbolism,  the sunflower is the symbol of happiness as it refers to long life, good luck .

In esoteric Christianity, the sunflower is a symbol of God’s love. Its reference to sun, and therefore light, is the message that following with faith in this light, the soul can attain its highest spiritual level.

 Join me in Kentucky this August and find happiness in painting a sunflower.

God bless. OM


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