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FLG 4533/ 6533 Art, Politics and Propaganda

This guide will aid students enrolled in Dr. Sally Gray's class Digital Humanities project using Knight Lab Gigapixel.

Symbolism in Art by Corinne Kennedy

This was originally published for the 2018 NEH Institute for Advanced Topics in Digital Humanities: Textual Data and Digital Texts in the Undergraduate Classroom.  Use the references at the bottom of this page to research further.

Art and literature often reflect well-known stories from mythology, legends, folklore, literature, or religion.  Before literacy became common, societies and civilizations used symbols to communicate meaning and provide context for recognizing meaning through objects, colors, events, or relationships.  


For example, the lily, a white showy flower, has been used for centuries to represent chastity, virginity, innocence, and purity.  The meaning can vary a bit from one culture to the next.  The word lily comes from Lilium, Latin, which comes from Greek leirion, meaning "true," as exemplified by the Madonna Lily. 

Walter Hood Fitch, “Lilium Candidum.” lithograph, 1877

Fig. 1. Walter Hood Fitch, “Lilium Candidum.” lithograph, 1877, (Missouri Botanical Gardens) in A Monograph of the Genus Lilium by Henry John Elwes, (London: Taylor & Francis, 1877), pg. 16, Plate 9.


This representation applies to many lilies, not just the white ones; but, Lilium Candidum most traditionally carries the symbolism of purity as the true lily.  While cultivated worldwide for over 3000 years, Lilium Candidum is a native lily to the Middle East and Balkan Peninsula. Of course Biblical association with the lily goes back to Song of Solomon, or Song of Songs, the Hebrew being  Shoshannah, meaning “lily” or “rose,” and described by Biblical scholars as a white blossom with six petals and six stamens.  It has been said these lilies decorated the columns of King Solomon's temple. With the establishment of the catholic church, the Lilium Candidum became the recognizable symbol for the Virgin Mary, or Madonna, fitting for the Madonna Lily - pure, white,and true to her God.       

Model Quatrefoil 4-story Lily Capital, BCE 400-30

Fig. 2.  Model Quatrefoil 4-story Lily Capital, BCE 400-30, pottery, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY.


The Greeks and Romans (circa 1200 BCE – 500 AD) used Lilium Candidum to symbolize the Goddesses Hera and Juno, referring to the flower as the “Milk of the Lily” or “Milk of the Gods,” which they thought gave immortality.  The myth tells the story of how Heracles secretly fed Hermes from a sleeping Hera’s breast. The force of Hermes feeding woke Hera, causing the goddess to thrust him from her.  Yet, her milk continued to flow, creating the Milky Way in the heavens; falling droplets created white lilies here on Earth (Fig. 3).  

Peter Paul Rubens.  The Birth of the Milky Way, c. 1636-37

Fig. 3.  Peter Paul Rubens.  The Birth of the Milky Way, c. 1636-37, oil on canvas, 181 cm; Width: 244 cm, Muse del Prado, Madrid, Spain. 


Although the Greek and Roman goddesses Juno or Hera have lost popularity and reverence today, the Catholic reappropriation of the lily to represent the Virgin Mary -- her purity & virginal state, as well as the immaculate conception.   Artists often depict Mary with a single lily (Fig. 4 & 5) some illustrate the angel Gabriel presenting the lily to Mary or place the lily in vase near her. 


Robert Campin, The Annunciation: Merode Altarpiece


Fig 4. Robert Campin, The Annunciation: Merode Altarpiece, c. 1425. Oil on oak, 25 3/8 x 46 3/8 in, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY.


Lily on table in The Annunciation Triptych (Merode Altarpiece)


Fig. 5.  Lily on table in The Annunciation Triptych (Merode Altarpiece)


After the Renaissance, the Victorians gave flowers significant meaning, using them to communicate secret messages known as Floriography or the “Language of Flowers.”  As this underlying language grew and spread, the white lily represents female figures and their purity. Considering the different colors of lilies, only the white lily represents female figures and their purity.  Of course, these floral representations can be found in literature, which contains symbols within texts to signify meaning from the author.


For instance, the American Romantic poet, Emily Dickinson (1830-1886), well-known for using flowers as a metaphor in her poems, as well as her preference to dress in white.  Growing up as a Calvinist, Dickinson became familiar with pictures of nuns dressed in white, most likely from art books her family collected.


Charles Allston Collins, Convent Thoughts, c. 1851

Fig. 6. Charles Allston Collins, Convent Thoughts, c. 1851, oil on canvas, 84x59 cm, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, England.


Dickinson typically dressed in white, “the patroness of a single and aesthetic life.”  Some scholars have been known to call her the “Nun of Amherst.”  Indeed, Dickinson never married, essentially becoming the pure virgin like unto the biblical Madonna.  In addition, Dickinson’s lifetime in America coincided with the Victorian period in England and making the poet familiar with the works of the Pre-Raphaelites, who expressed a penchant for using Christian symbols in their art. 


Besides dressing in white, Dickinson avidly cultivated a garden that included Madonna lilies. Apparently, she habitually greeted her benefactor, T.W. Higginson, with two lilies in hand, and could be seen with cuttings from her cultivated lilies frequently.  These images provided the partial basis for Dickinson’s signature characterization of white and association with the Lilium Candidum.  


Dickinson knew lilies represent hallowed beauty, purity, and virginity.  The poet uses lilies in at least four poems to discuss religion. In Thomas Johnson’s, collected, Poems of Emily Dickinson, poem #392:


Through the Dark Sod—as Education—

The Lily passes sure—

Feels her white foot—no trepidation—

Her faith—no fear—


Afterward—in the Meadow—

Swinging her Beryl Bell—

The Mold-life—all forgotten—now—

In Ecstasy—and Dell—


Like Dickinson’s poem including lilies, this poem expresses the “education” of the lily as it pushes through soil, bravely, to sprout, grow, and bloom, representative of Easter and resurrection.  The lily, identified in the female, happily forgets the grave and joyfully swings through the meadow and the dell with grave forgotten -- an illusion to the immaculate conception and Christ’s resurrection.  The poem can generally be viewed as a celebration of spring, of the Virgin Mary, or of surviving trial and tribulation.


Keep in mind, symbolism uses objects other than flowers; geometric shapes, numbers, or colors have taken on traditional meanings that artists and authors use them to aid the viewer/ reader in recognizing important aspects of the image/ story.  Symbols act as a bridge by revealing subtle parts of a story, so one may understand the entirety of the image and its message.   


Attribution + Noncommercial + NoDerivatives

Dickinson, Emily. "Poem 392." The Poems of Emily Dickinson, edited by Thomas H Johnson, Cambridge UP, 1955. p. 308.


Farr,  Judith. The Passion of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge, UP, 1992, p. 36.


Gilbert, Sandra. “The Wayward Nun Beneath the Hill: Emily Dickinson & the Mysteries of Womanhood.” Feminist Critics Read Emily Dickinson, edited by Suzanne Juhasz, Indiana UP, 1983, p. 22.


Heilmeyer, Marina. The Language of Flowers: Symbols & Myths. Prestel, 2001, p. 50.


Hyam, Roger and Richard Pankhurst. Plants and Their Names: A Concise Dictionary. Oxford UP, 1995, p. 186.


McDowell, Marta. Emily Dickinson’s Gardens: A Celebration of a Poet & Gardener. McGraww-Hill, 2005, pp. 71-72.


Wang, Jing “Language of Flowers in Emily Dickinson’s Poetry.” Studies in Literature and Language, vol. 10, no. 6, 2015, p. 49.