Lilies have long been portrayed in the visual arts through a diverse range of mediums and artistic styles.
Their flowers of heavenly beauty have graced canvases, large and small, of famous and not-so-famous artists, and fired the imagination and spirits of those who have painted them.
From the works of history's finest artists, lilies have left a lasting and indelible influence on our collective culture of art, media and design.
In the world around us, and in the art that we see, there is no flower quite like the lily. From images of ancient times, their impact is surprisingly clear.
The Prince of Lilies
The lily had its earliest beginnings in the art world as a decorative element on the ceramics and interior walls of many ancient Cretan households. Known as the 'Prince of Lilies', the above image is taken from a section of the wall fresco in the Palace of Knossos, circa 1550.
A ring of red lilies (Lilium chalcedonicum) encircles the prince's neck as a thin chain of flowers, as he walks gallantly among similar-looking lilies that grow around him. These lilies are of a species of lily that is native to Greece and one of the oldest in Europe. A much loved historical flower throughout the centuries, the scarlet martagon lily also appeared in the artworks of 17th Century flower painters.
In the thousands of years that passed after the ancient Minoans, the painted lily became more than a stylistic device for decoration.
The lily grew in its symbolic power and its ability to communicate the divine. It imbued a sense of liberation for those who sought to teach dogma through painted image.
Entwined with religious sentimentality, the White Lily (Lilium candidum) became a visible symbol for the purity and chastity of the Blessed Virgin Mary – the mother of Jesus.
A central figure in the Roman Catholic Church, the Virgin Mary was portrayed in a number of important paintings throughout the Italian Renaissance. Artists who painted the Annunciation (with Madonna lilies) during this time, included Leonardo da Vinci, Pietro Perugino, Fra Filippo Lippi and Sandro Botticelli.
Botticelli, an artist of the Early Renaissance period, painted his version of the Annunciation entitled 'Cestello Annunciation' in 1489-1490. The above scene depicts Archangel Gabriel holding a stem of flowering Madonna lilies as he reaches out with his hand towards the Virgin Mary. While the gesture appears simplistic and restrained, the weight of its meaning is profound.
By the mere presence of the Madonna lily, we are immediately drawn to the significance of these flowers, as a symbolic representation of the birth, the arrival, and the welcoming of the Holy Spirit of Jesus Christ. It is in this way that the white lily became a symbol of divine truth – the essence of God, the soul within – in western art.
Exploring the lily's role in our art history, it is the artist's attention to detail that often has the greatest effect on the viewer. Every element in a composition carries importance for an artist and the lily is just as relevant to the whole of a work, as when it is alone as a still-life.
The originality of a painting does not just come from its color or the particular brushstrokes that have been made. It is what brings a story to life and communicates something more meaningful than what can be said in words. There is more to see in the work of painted lilies. No other time in art history could this be true than in certain, overly imaginative paintings of the 16th Century.
Giuseppe Arcimboldo painted 'Spring' (above) in 1573. He was an Italian painter who lived from 1527 to 1593, and was considered to be very eccentric in his portrayal of human anatomy. Displacing what would normally be a crown of hair, the sitter's head is instead a smothering arrangement of flowers. There are pale pink petals for skin and a bunch of opening rose buds for cheeks and chin.
There is much personality appearing in this work, with a Lilium candidum flower cutely sprouting off the top rear section of the figure's head. Glowing in floral abundance, 'Spring' is a work shouting with its own sense of humor, as much for the viewer's own fun and amusement, as it must have been for the artist who painted it. Not all Madonna lilies need be taken in seriousness, it seems!
The Blessed Damozel
There is little to deny that Dante Gabriel Rossetti was the most romantic of the Pre-Raphaelite painters. He was inspired by feminine beauty, medieval art and the writings of romantic poets. Aside from idealizing the female form, he painted the flowers within his many compositions with exquisite coloring and a high degree of accuracy.
From capturing the delicacy of old-fashioned roses to the golden cream highlights on Lilium candidum flowers, there is a feeling of sensitivity within Rossetti's work. Unearthly and heavenly is one way of describing his painting 'The Blesssed Damozel' (pictured above). The artist wrote a poem that accompanies the work (of which an excerpt follows) when he was 18 years old. It was not until 1871 at the age of 42 that he chose to create a painted version.
"The blessed damozel leaned out
From the gold bar of Heaven;
Her eyes were deeper than the depth
Of waters stilled at even;
She had three lilies in her hand,
And the stars in her hair were seven..."
Two works of Rossetti's that echo the use of white lilies as religious icons are 'Ecce Ancilla Domini!' and 'The Girlhood of Mary Virgin'. Another painting, 'The Beloved' (The Bride), completed in 1865-1866, depicts a cluster of bright orange tiger lilies (Lilium lancifolium) in the top right-hand corner of the canvas (below). Based on the 'The Song of Solomon', these lilies, with their exotic attributes, are said to symbolize physical love, rather than divinity.
In today's world, the art of the lily is no longer limited by the space on a canvas, or the size of a wall or sheet of watercolor paper. They now decorate a wide variety of products we take for granted, including dinnerware, serviettes, greeting cards and writing paper, clothing, tattoos and embroidery kits, wallpapers, fine china and contemporary fabrics.
Even if we do not grow lilies ourselves, they are flowers to be seen everywhere in the world around us. Like the expression goes, life imitates art... or is it that art imitates life? Lilies remarkably do both.
Next article: The Symbolic Nature of Lilies