Taming the Symbolic Urge


Inevitably, if we think we recognise a symbol within a painting, we are compelled to ruminate on what it could mean, conjuring, in conjunction with all other contextual placements, a logical, considered narrative, or allegory.  However, when searching for a flower’s symbolic resonance, the best we can hope to find is an implied metaphor commonly understood; a primary, intuitive and emotional response to something recognised as a sign.  At the heart of this response lies the intrinsic nature of the symbolic imagination.  This is necessarily a process of distortion and transformation of natural objects: “a manner of self-expression by a projection of the self onto the external world, or a dissolution of the self into objects of visible reality”. (Nikolova, 1993, 1). 

As inconvenient as this may be, it is simply not possible in most cases to say with any certainty that a Pre-Raphaelite flower means anything at all.  

Yet, from all of our conversations over the past few weeks it is clear that as soon as we look at a flower in a Pre-Raphaelite painting we try to ascribe meaning.  Invariably this quest revolves around symbolic associations, and until now, this journey has been directed towards the contradictory, arbitrary medium of the Victorian language of flowers.  Crucially, there is no evidence (as yet) that the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was familiar with this idiom.  Similarly, all too often we become side-tracked by the apparent symbolic significance of Shakespearean flowers, due, in part to subject choice.  Even Henry Nicholson Ellacombe in his seminal work The Plant-Lore and Garden Craft of Shakespeare (1884) admits that although Shakespeare was undoubtedly a lover of flowers, not all notices of the Rose are “emblematical and allegorical”. (250) In addition, interpreting Shakespearean flora symbolica via the Victorian language of flowers is not particularly helpful, nor particularly accurate (more on this later).  

It is critical that we recognise that any floral symbol is a mere wisp of allusion which unconsciously appears in the frame of a painting at will, and just as swiftly disperses as gently as dandelion seeds in a light breeze.   What is more, from an historical point of view, we can be rarely sure what an artist intended to evoke unless we can find evidence in a diary or letter or poem attached to the painting.  Even then, there may have been a change of heart and the flowers painted may have altered during the creative process. This is clearly an issue, and the tension this creates within art historical discourse is undeniable.

If we find ourselves in symbolic choppy waters, extending this metaphor, is there a port in the storm?  Although by no means an exhaustive summary, here are some of the alternative primary sources we might consider consulting to interrogate the potential symbolic quality of a Pre-Raphaelite painting

William Holman Hunt
The Light of the World (1851-56)
Oil on canvas, 49.8 x 26.1 cm
Manchester Art Gallery


We are on relatively safe ground thinking about biblical imagery within Pre-Raphaelite art, always with the proviso that sometimes artists, Dante Gabriel Rossetti included, would manipulate sacred imagery for their own ends. The influence of biblical doctrine is obvious in much of William Holman Hunt’s work, and particularly in The Light of the World. In this, “the most famous Pre-Raphaelite religious painting of all”, Hunt employs the natural world to fuse Christian scripture with contemporary spiritual desolation. (Prettejohn, 2012, 245)

He creates a visual sermon, extolling the virtues of the text from Revelation (3:20): “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any man hears My voice, and opens the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with Me”, along with a direct call for individual action.  Firmly planted in theological symbolism, where “flowers growing in the garden are men and women who, like flowers, bloom … and then fade away and die, the (bind)weed represents sin.  The nature of sin is that it entwines itself about the hearts and souls of people, preventing them from coming to perfection, in a similar manner to the way in which weeds destroy the plants in our gardens.” (Bruster, 1888, 6) The Saviour, carrying the lantern of enlightenment, knocks on the door of the soul and waits patiently for an answer.  The overgrown thorny brambles, the puny, dry, gone-to-seed flowerheads and the emaciated, woody ivy are used to represent the dearth of spiritual enlightenment in those who deny Christ.  


Equally, the ancient world was hugely influential. Ovid’s Metamorphoses (having inspired Dante Alighieri, Giovanni Boccaccio, Geoffrey Chaucer and William Shakespeare, and widely depicted in great works of art) immortalised countless unfortunate protagonists, male and female, as honorary members of the plant genus. This process often transmuted their situations, predicaments, virtues or vices from human concerns into reflections of nature – for example, Narcissus (3.341-510), Anemone (10.731-39), Larkspur (13.394-98), Laurel (1.452-567), Hyacinth (10.160-218) or Reed (13.890-97).  As each animate human character merges with its floral equivalent, the line between what we take to be normal and extraordinary becomes blurred.  

Jon Everett Millais
Trust Me (1862)
Oil on canvas, 112 x 80cm
Private collection.

I wonder whether John Everett Millais might have been influenced by the Classics when he painted the bowl of crocuses in Trust Me?

As many people suggested in our conversations, we tend to assume that crocuses are largely positive signs:

early spring, early awakening, coming out of winter (Peter Green)

early spring, new life, new awakenings, innocence (Jason Dempsey)

gladness and hope (Heidi Wyldewood)

life and warmth in winter (Rosie von Engel)

eternal hope and love (James Dignan)

new life, recovery from winter/darkness (Chris Williams)

power of new love and future, youth, new life (Susan Seth)

blossoming, spring of love (Olcay B. Connor)

spring love, innocence, denial (Martin Beek)

Yet, as Heidi Wyldewood pointed out, classical mythology lends a slightly different nuance. The two figures in the painting are divided by the diminutive, seemingly innocuous spring flowers which are yet to open. The older man exercises dominion over his female companion, the riding crop and whip being symbols of her suppression.  He compels her to surrender her secret letter, received, we assume, from a lover.  The mortal Krokus and his lover, the nymph Smilax, were both transformed by the gods into plants for presuming to consummate a forbidden love.  He became a crocus, which is seen here confined to a small bowl, bowing its head to the authoritarian will of the older man (and she incidentally was turned into bindweed).  Does the future look that bright, afterall?

Medieval Verse

Edward Coley Burne-Jones
The Beguiling of Merlin (1872-77)
Oil on canvas, 186 x 111 cm
Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight

Edward Coley Burne-Jones’s The Beguiling of Merlin illustrates an episode from the French medieval verse Romance of Merlin in which the sorcerer is lulled to sleep by the enchantress Nimue (The Lady of the Lake) in the forest of Broceliande.  From a literal point of view, the principal floral symbol, the hawthorn tree with its florets of tiny white flowers, provides a suitable place of rest for the slumbering Merlin.  It is ironic that classical Greek brides carried sprigs of hawthorn, boughs of which were also placed upon the bridal altar full of blossoms, as an emblem of the flowery future they anticipated. (Friend, 1883,115)  Merlin’s hope of intimacy with the alluring, sinuous figure of Nimue is as transitory as the hawthorn blossom as they are more likely to provide a funeral shroud than be a joyous matrimonial accoutrement.

The hawthorn trunk’s serpentine qualities make it a perfect choice for the artist.  According to Ingram, the hawthorn is a symbol of hope. This is a strange thought, given that it is about to entomb the betrayed sorcerer by winding its meandering branches around his body. While The Beguiling of Merlin stands as a salutary lesson, Merlin appears more than happy to face oblivion in the pursuit of one with such hypnotic seductive power.

Gerard’s Herball

Dante Gabriel Rossetti possessed two herbals: Lyte’s Herball (foolscap folio in leather, 1578) and Gerard’s The Herball or General History of Plantes (second edition, 1636), and we know that he consulted the latter on several occasions.  Gerard’s Herball was the most widely circulated botany book in English in the seventeenth century.  This is an extensive encyclopaedia of plant life with each chapter containing a copious amount of information including a detailed description of the appearance of a specific specimen, where it grows, the time of year you can expect to see it, its other known names, its ‘temperature’ (or relationship with the four humors of Hippocratic medicine), and virtues (or how to use it to cure a variety of ailments).  

Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Venus Verticordia (1864-68)
Oil on canvas, 81.3 x 68 cm
Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum

It is perhaps more than coincidental that Gerard’s Herball tells us that “The water of Honisuckles is good against the sorenesse of the throat and uvula … and likewise for ulcerations … in the privie parts of man or woman.”(Gerard, 1636, 892) The conflation of the mouth and “the privie parts” could well be deliberate in Rossetti’s portrayal of Venus Verticordia, where honeysuckle plays such a prominent role.  Flowers’ sexual proclivity was nothing new, of course, but, elevated by Carolus Linnaeus’s mid-eighteenth-century sexual classification of the plant kingdom, the humble flower was re-established as a highly charged analogue of human sexual courtship and reproduction.  Nature’s supreme procreative power is undoubtedly centre stage in Venus Verticordia with Rossetti presenting his own uniquely eroticised version of nature doing what nature does.   


Arthur Hughes
Forget-Me-Not (date unknown)
Oil on canvas, 108 x 64 cm
Private collection

Flower-lore revolves around the history, etymology, uses and legends that surround plants.  Much of it was passed down through storytelling over generations.  The forget-me-not, for example, has an interesting progeny.  It acquired its name, according to legend, following the tragic loss of a gallant, if impetuous, lover, who in an attempt to keep his betrothed happy, ventured forth to gather flowers for her bridal wreath:

On parting kiss of his fair bridge, and swiftly far away

Like the wild swan whose home he sought, young Albert met the spray

Of rising waves, which foamed in wrath, as if some spirit’s hand

Awoke the genii of the lake to guard their mystic land.

The flowers were won, but devious his course lay back again;

To stem the waters in their tow’ring rage he strove in vain:

Fondly he glanced to the yet distant shore, where in despair

His Ida stood with outstretched arms, amid shrieks and tears and pray’r.

Darker and fiercer gathered on the tempest in its wrath.

The eddying waves with vengeful ire beset the fatal path;

With the wild energy of death he well-nigh reached the spot.

The azure flowers fell at her feet – “Ida, Forget-me-not!”

The words yet borne upon his lips, the prize seem’d almost won.

When amid the rush of angry waves he sank – for ever gone! 

 Anon, Beautiful Bouquets, 1869, 8

Other associations are captured by botanist Hilderic Friend in his two-volume work, Flowers and Flower Lore (1886), regarded as one of the most scholarly flower folklore texts of the period. For example, we are told that:

Saracen brides used to wear Orange blossoms as a sign of fecundity: and occasionally the same emblem may have been worn by European brides ever since the time of the Crusades; but the general adoption of wreaths of Orange blossoms for brides is comparatively a modern practice.

Friend, 1883, 112
John Everett Millais
The Bridesmaid (1851)
Oil on panel, 27.9 x 20.3 cm
Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

In The Bridesmaid Millais appears to be demonstrating his knowledge of flower-lore combined with popular culture. The prominence of orange blossom may reflect an appreciation of the flower’s increased popularity during this period thanks to Queen Victoria’s insistence on wearing a simple wreath of orange blossom in her hair when she married in 1840.

This painting is saturated with sexual desire and offers us a rare insight into the desires of this sexually-aware young woman.  The strangely foreshortened orange on the red-rimmed plate next to the slice of wedding cake could allude to the hymeneal altar, for the fruit represents the golden apple presented by Jupiter to Juno on the day of their wedding. (Friend, 112-13)  Millais’s bridesmaid is practising the St Agnes’s Eve ritual of passing wedding cake through a wedding ring nine times to reveal her true love.  Meanwhile the phallic silver sugar caster brazenly hints at the preoccupation of her thoughts.  Take the orange blossom away and the inference would still be there thanks to the symbolist power of the phallus, the binary opposition of white and red on the plate, the cake, the ring, and the fruit.  The flower adds to the symbolism, rendering it all the more potent, but the painting does not rely on the flower for its power. Millais’s flower is much more an accessory alluding to recognisable cultural practice. It is placed to direct the eye – for emphasis.  Without it, the title would suffice, and little would be lost in interpretation.

The Challenge

If we are inclined to look for a floral symbol, we are at liberty to see whatever we choose to see.  The problem is that all too often our pre-conceived narratives are wide of the mark, and thus tend to lead us down the garden path.  Flowers are complex entities, displaying a range of connotations and potentialities, and symbolism is just one facet to consider.  Simple decoding is anathema. 

This raises three fundamental questions: 

Firstly, if we see a non-intentional symbol in a painting, does it still exist, and can it carry any art historical weight?  

Secondly, if we construct a meaningful narrative around a symbol others do not see, is it still a symbol, given that to be a symbol it has to be a metaphor held in common? 

Thirdly, can we agree that a flower has a variety of potential allusions, but that it does not and cannot mean anything at all, unless we have solid evidence to the contrary?

I would love to hear your thoughts.

Please contact me here to continue the conversation.

Further reading:

Anon, Beautiful Bouquets, Culled from the Poets of All Countries: The Forget-Me-Not (London: Frederick Warne & Co., 1869).

Rev. John Bruster, A Children’s Flower Sermon: The Beautiful Valley and the Lilies (London & Liverpool: Houston & Sons & Gibbs & Co, 1888).

Henry Nicholson Ellacombe, The Plant-Lore and Garden-Craft of Shakespeare, 2nd edn. (London: W. Satchell & Co., 1884).

John Gerard, Herball or Generale Historie of Plantes (London: Adam Islip, Joice Norton, and Richard Whitakers, 2nd edn., 1636).

Rev. Hilderic Friend, Flowers and Flower Lore, 2 vols (London: W. Swan Sonnenschein, 1883).

John H. Ingram, Flora Symbolica: Or the Language and Sentiment of Flowers (London: Frederick Warne, 1869).

Irena Nikolova Nikolva, “The Allegorical and Symbolic Modes of Representation in W. Wordworth’s Poems of the Fancy and Poems of the Imagination,” MA dissertation, University of Eastern Illinois, 1993.

Elizabeth Prettejohn, The Art of the Pre-Raphaelites (London: Tate, 2012).