Art & Antiques by Dr. Lori: Flowers in Renaissance and Baroque Art

The tulip is the quintessential symbol of luxury, wealth and prosperity in the history of art. Photo courtesy of the staff of www.DrLoriV.com

Did you ever think that working in your garden could enhance your art collection? Recognizing flower forms may help you to cash in on fine art.

Flowers have been important subjects in fine art for centuries. Renaissance artists painted flowers as both the main subject and the backdrop for some of the most important works of art in tempera on panel, oil on canvas, and fresco.

Alessandro Botticelli’s famous painting Primavera (Spring) from the collection of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence featured a flower garden of accurately painted buds native to Renaissance Italy. Botticelli’s main subject was the mythical Goddess of Spring or Primavera, but the painting also offered onlookers a nearly encyclopedic view of more than 140 different types of flowers all of which could have been cultivated in a garden in Florence, circa 1475.

Renaissance artists who mainly produced triptychs, frescoes and altarpieces for the church and private works of art for wealthy patrons offered certain flowers within their compositions as symbols used to instruct the faithful.

For instance, the ever-popular carnation was one such flower which was often included in Renaissance paintings. It referred to the life of the Virgin Mary. Carnations, a symbol of pure love and fidelity, were said to have sprung up at Mary’s feet from the tears that she shed when Christ carried the Cross to the site of his crucifixion. Carnations are found in numerous 14th and 15th Century altarpieces throughout Europe featuring the Madonna.

Like carnations, lilies were also a reference to the Virgin Mary and her purity. Lilies were also a nod to the Holy Family. The typical flower with three buds on a single stem reference the three members of the Holy Family and are commonly gifted on Easter to highlight the celebration of the Resurrection. Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ, is often depicted in Renaissance art in a gated garden surrounded by lilies suggesting her protected purity and the pure color of the flower. These flowers are also exchanged between mothers and children on Mother’s Day.

During the Dutch Baroque period (circa 1580-1700), artists painted floral still lifes that conveyed beauty, which referenced the brevity of life or the idea that we should nurture and enjoy every day as we do our short lived floral bouquets. Floral still life paintings, widely collected by Holland’s middle class in the 1600s, were produced in great numbers by artists like Rausch, Heda and de Heem, and today command high prices in the art market.

The Dutch people’s love for tulips and their mildly fragrant bloom announces – via its trumpet form – the annual coming of spring. The tulip is the quintessential symbol of luxury, wealth and prosperity in the history of art. Dutch botanist Carolus Clusius brought the first tulip buds from Constantinople (present day Istanbul) to Leiden in 1593. Originally used in medical research experiments, the tulip sparked great economic interest as sales of the high-priced onion-like bulbs spread throughout Europe in the 1600s.

Tulipomania resulted as well-to-do Dutchmen traded tulips as a luxury item. Some socialites regarded tulip bulbs as even too precious to plant. Many saved the bulbs and displayed them on dining tables as part of a high-style centerpiece. By the 1630s, tulips had increased in popularity and in price with significant property exchanges taking place all in the pursuit of tulips.

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