Cremone, J.C., Jr. and R.P. Doherty. 1992. Vita Brevis: Moral symbolism from nature. In: D. Relf (ed.). The role of horticulture in human well-being and social development: A national symposium. Timber Press, Portland, Ore.
Plants have frequently been used in paintings as potent vehicles for symbolism. Artists have often utilized flowers to convey religious, moral, or social lessons. Such floral symbolism include the lily illustrating purity, the carnation representing fidelity, and the tulip indicating greed. Religious doctrines were also given botanical symbols: wheat became a metaphor for life, jasmine symbolized Divine love, and the passionflower recalled the instruments of the Passion of Christ. This symbolic use of botanical elements in art to convey moral messages and social statements will be discussed and richly illustrated. Particular attention will be given to the Dutch vanitas still-lifes of the seventeenth century. In addition to displaying botanical accuracy and aesthetic quality, these painted bouquets were often symbolic of the transience of life and sensual pleasure. Painted insects devoured tromp l' oeil leaves, and roses passed their temporal beauty: Ars longa, vita brevis. Finally, examples from such artists as Georgia O'Keefe and Andy Warhol will be illustrated to consider the intriguing question: Can symbolic moral and social critiques be found in the twentieth century flower paintings?