Say It With Flowers

An Introduction to Floral Symbolism in Manuscript Illumination

Giles de Laval

During the 14th and 5th centuries, depictions of the natural world became increasingly common in marginalia, and illuminated miniatures and borders. Floral themes were especially popular, likely for the jewel-like colours of the subject matter, as well as to show off the skills master artists like Simon Bening and the unnamed Master of Mary of Burgundy. Using flowers in this way was prevalent in many 15th and early 16th century manuscripts, the trend culminating in the illusionistic realism of the Flemish flower-strewn style of border.

Many flowers and plants bore symbolic meanings from classical times, no less so in the Middle Ages (although with meanings often adopted and adapted to the needs of Christianity). Even with the rise of literacy and personal devotional reading, these symbols retained their potency as a supplement to the written word, and ready appeal to the medieval child-like delight in equivocation and metaphor is easily seen.

Incorporating them into illumination in this way gained new popularity in these centuries as the result of two major influences. The first was the Renaissance, with it's increased appreciation of the natural world, and more accurate observation and depiction of nature in art. The other was the religious movement called devotio moderna, which among other things held that the divine was ever-present, and could be readily seen in everyday objects. Fusing the old devotional symbolism with this new, more secular outlook was an inspired development adding a deeper layer to the obvious beauty of these trompe l'oeuil borders, and proved immediately popular with the bourgeoisie and nobility alike.

Here is a list (by no means exhaustive,) of some popular flowers and their symbolic meanings in late period art and manuscript illumination:

Bindweed (convolvulus)


humility (from its low, trailing growth habit and flowers blooming close to the ground)



Carnation (pink, stock)

the crucifixion (pinks smell like cloves, cloves look like nails, nails were used to crucify Jesus)


associated with the Holy Ghost (from Latin "columba", dove)


associated with the Virgin "Mary's crown"



Enclosed garden (hortus conclusus)


symbolic of the Virgin, as a metaphor for her impregnation without penetration


fond memory


everlasting life, associated with Christ

Hawthorn (thorn, may blossom)

Christ's passion. (The crown of thorns was thought to be made of hawthorn; also associated with Christmas as the unique "Holy Thorn" according to legend brought to England by Joseph of Arimethea, bloomed on Old Christmas Day.)

Heartsease (viola)

new love


associated with the Virgin (white iris symbolic of virginity). Often seen in devotional depictions



fidelity, constancy (for its evergreen nature)


purity and innocence, closely associated with the Virgin and staple of Annunciation scenes

Lily of theValley

associated with the Virgin, used to decorate Lady chapels. Also called Our Lady's Tears, said to grow at the base of the Cross where her tears fell.



sorrow (from the French name soussye, rhymes with souci, "sorrow"). Also associated with the Virgin "Mary's Gold".




a complex symbol comprising enduring love, beauty, the measure of perfection, sacrifice for a heartfelt desire, secrecy, transience of worldly matters, roses are very commonly met with in a variety of contexts. Associated with the Virgin as the Rosa Mundi (The Rose of the world), it symbolises her motherhood and perfection, the Biblical flowering stem of Jesse which leads to Christ her son, and through her a symbol of God's love for the world. White eglantine rose is symbolic of purity, and the briar rose was emblematic of the pleasures and pains of love.







good works, fruits of good labour. Also associated with Christ's passion (the fruit being the colour of blood), and with the Trinity (triplet leaves).


purity, pure love; associated with the Virgin

The context and position of these flowers could add yet another layer of meaning to the illumination, and the decorations of important pages from manuscripts this era suggest that they may have been chosen for symbolic purposes as much as colour and shape. For example, in depictions of Christ a rose is commonly placed directly beneath, carrying the symbolic meanings of the stalk of Jesse, his mother the Virgin who brought about his birth, and the love of God for the world. In many manuscripts pinks and thorn accompanies the Nativity, suggesting his passion and death was inherent in his birth; or the crucifixion to emphasise the impact of the event. In a similar way, flowers such as speedwell, strawberries and columbines might be arranged around a portrait or arms of the manuscript's owner to reflect their piety and hopes for success in their worldly ventures. Such rich symbolism could be easily adapted for use in SCA manuscripts.



JJG Alexander, The Master of Mary of Burgundy: A Book of Hours for Engelbert of Nassau. George Braziller 1970

Janet Backhouse, Books of Hours. British Museum Press

Miranda Innes & Clay Perry, Medieval Flowers. Kyle Cathie Ltd 1997

Sylvia Landsberg, Medieval Gardens. British Museum Press

John Plummer, The Hours of Catherine of Cleves. George Braziller 1966

Elizabeth Schaeffer, "Time & the Flower: Significant Images of the Passage of Time in the Floral Borders of the Hours of Catherine of Cleves" in Essays in Medieval Studies, Loyola College, Chicago.

Rob Talbot & Robin Whiteman, Brother Cadfael's Herb Garden. Little, Brown & Company 1996


Home | Guildhall | Cloisters | Scriptorium | Model BookLibrary | Lectern | Vault | Almoner | Owlery


Authored by Jehan, Giles, and Yseult AS XXXVIII (2003)