Virtuous Flowers in Renaissance Symbolism

The Roots of Sylvia Wood's Artwork 

Elise Arsenault | Reporter

There was a time when insects gave warnings, fruit spread virtues, and flowers told stories. The presence of these elements in artwork during the Renaissance became a language that has become foreign to most: the language of Renaissance symbolism. 

Sylvia Woods is a painter who, fascinated by the symbolic richness of this era, seeks to create a “visual dictionary” in order to reawaken the significance tied to flowers. Her series of paintings, entitled Renaissance Symbolism, was up in Redeemer’s art gallery from February 5th–March 1st this year. The inspiration for her collection grew from memories of artwork in Florence, Italy. It wasn’t until she became an Artist in Residence at a church, however, that she recalled those pieces while contemplating “the last time the Arts and the Church were very integrated.”

“When I looked at those paintings with fresh eyes,” she explained, “I noticed all these elements of natural fruit — either in the hand of a Christ-child, or in the foreground. I was curious about it.

“I started to do more research at that point, and decided to put a show together called ‘Fruit and Renaissance Symbolism.’” Therein, she would isolate the symbols and convey one of their meanings — since they were often read contextually within a painting. This series shifts to the significance of floral symbolism. 

“People of the time knew exactly what these flowers meant,” she stressed. “Most of the population was illiterate, so reading scripture wasn’t an option. Whether it was sacred or secular work, though, meanings were revealed to the population through symbolism.”

Thus, the ideas behind her artwork are just as important as the depictions themselves. The paintings’ titles convey the virtue chosen to associate with the symbol.

“For some of the elements,” Sylvia specified, “you could do two, three, four, or five paintings for their meaning in different contexts.” She then gave a paradoxical example. 

“Symbols could represent a warning, as well as a redeemed element. The apple in the hands of a betrothed couple, for example, is a warning against temptation. In the hands of a Christ-child, however, it is a symbol of salvation.

“It has a similar, but contrary meaning — all dependent on the painting it’s in.”

Once Sylvia isolated an element’s meaning through research, she allowed it to inform the painting's composition and colour.

 The most striking, vivid and complex pieces were inarguably the trio at the centre of the gallery. When asked about their significance, Sylvia admitted they were “a departure from specifically Renaissance symbols, although the meanings carry through.” During the Victorian era, when cultural stipulations prevented some forms of emotional communication; one means of expression was through bouquets called “tussie mussies.”

 “When you handed someone this kind of bouquet,” she explained, “the flowers would tell a story or give a series of information. The other person would ‘read’ it, and then respond with their own combination of flowers to share their ideas with you.”

 This tradition informs Sylvia’s stunning, central trilogy. From left to right, the paintings represent her “current stage of life, where [her] oldest child is leaving home.” Each one is a reflection of a segment of her story and the emotions that cling to it.

The gallery audience heard word of another tradition that opening night. The practice of planting a “Mary’s Garden” was shared by Professor Cuthill while introducing Sylvia’s work.

“Going back to the middle ages,” he explained, “Nuns and Monks planted these gardens outside the convent or monastery walls. Each flower would have some significance, pointing to a particular virtue they wished to nurture.

 “As they manicured the garden, they would be reminded that these are virtues that they need to cultivate within their own lives. They recognized something significant — that within the stuff of creation, there are pointers to a bigger plan.”

Sylvia’s art awakened us to this sort of meditation. Contemplating her artistic interpretation of these flowers and their virtues was a beautiful experience. It represented creation as a kind of compass — able to offer wisdom and wonder once we are still enough behold it.