Signs and Symbols 1 - living things

   Paintings of the Annunciation  are often full of seemingly irrelevant items; but few of these are there purely for decoration. The language and meaning of symbols was familiar to those who commissioned and painted these images, but now a little research is required to fully understand them. Most have religious significance; some have a local meaning, or represent the donor in some  way. 

Wild life - plants
   The symbolism of flowers is a complex study in itself.  A number of them are associated with the Virgin Mary and can be found in the various images of her. A note of warning.  It is all too easy to get a little carried away; all white flowers can end up representing the Virgin, all red flowers the crucifixion of Christ.
   A lily, the symbol of purity and virginity, will almost certainly be in an Annunciation image somewhere, either in the hands of Gabriel, or in a vase. Anna Jameson, in Legends of the Madonna, says that, to be correct, they should not have stamens. I never would have thought of that.
    Roses are a  symbol of Mary, (the 'rose without thorns') and these may be seen in a vase or growing outside. 

  In the painting by  Barthélemy d'Eyck below, the lilies are accompanied by a single red carnation, which is a genuine symbol of the crucifixion of Christ to come. Its Latin name, Dianthus, means 'God's flower'. 
In the painting by Simone Martini (on this page) Gabriel carries an olive branch instead of a lily. This was not just to annoy the Florentines, whose symbol the lily was; an olive branch was in the beak of the dove that returned to the Ark, a sign of the new world to come. 

 Barthélemy d'Eyck
Ste Marie-Madeleine, Aix-en-Provence


  Other flowers that have become associated with the Virgin are columbines, cyclamen,  lily of the valley and irises. Gabriel sometimes carries a palm frond instead of a lily; this is probably based on the image in the Song of Solomon - 'Thou art stately as a palm tree'. Palms are more usually associated with martyrdom.
  For more on flower symbolism read  'Nature and its Symbols' (Lucia Impelluso,  J Paul Getty editions)  - and/or The Penguin Book of Symbols.

Wild life - creatures
  I have to confess to being totally confused about the significance of cats in these paintings. Many Annunciations have one. In this version by Lorenzo Lotto the cat rushes off in alarm. One suggestion is that the cat represents wickedness, or even the devil, being chased off by the Angel. In that case, what about De Beer's well behaved white puss, looking on with interest? A symbol of purity?

Lorenzo Lotto
Pinacoteca Comunale, Recanati

Jan de Beer
Private collection

  . . .and what are we to make of these two, who appear to have no interest in the proceedings at all?  Perhaps Federico  just liked cats.
   Anna Jameson did not approve; she considered the pictures 'an example of the decline of religious art' at this time. 

Details from Annunciations by Federico Barocci.   S. Maria degli Angeli, Assisi (left)  Galleria Nazionale delle Marche, Urbino (right)

  Caporali's Annunciation has a cat and dog fight going on in the background; the faithful dog ousting the wicked cat. Meanwhile, Paris Bordone's dog is watching carefully over his mistress. Are there some puppies under the  lectern? It's hard to see.

Bartolemeo Caporali
Galleria Nazionale dell'Umbria, Perugia


Paris Bordone (Detail)
Pinacoteca Nazionale, Siena

  Like flowers, the iconography of birds provides endless fun for art historians.  The obvious symbol is that of the dove, and we have dealt with that here.  Look out also for peacocks, partridges, and goldfinches!
  It seems that partridges generally have a negative image in biblical scholarship, but they can be a symbol of the Virgin because 'The female partridge turns to her companion  the same way the virgin annunciate turned to the Archangel Gabriel'. (Impelluso, Nature and its Symbols). Convinced? Nor am I, but maybe Titian was, as he included a pair of them in this Annunciation, from the Scuola Grande di San Rocco in Venice, where it does its best to hold its own with all those Tintorettos.

  Peacocks do pop up occasionally, as in this wonderful Annunciation by Carpaccio in which Mary has clearly been busy feeding the Venetian pigeons. Again, their reputation is rather ambivalent; they can be seen as an image of vanity. They also represent resurrection  and rebirth, as it was assumed that they lost their feathers in autumn and grew them back in the winter. As we have seen, Gabriel sometimes sports peacock feathers.

Ca' d'Oro, Venice

  There is also a goldfinch in Carpaccio's painting (on the ground by the angel) and this is a familiar symbol of the crucifixion of Christ that is to come, and is often seen in Madonna and Child images.  Goldfinches feed on thistles, which brings to mind the crown of thorns, and the red  face represents Christ's Blood.

  The thought may have occurred that these birds - peacocks and goldfinches particularly - are extremely attractive and not that easy to paint. Their function as a simple display of the artist's skill should not be discounted. 
And finally . . . . .
  A snail. Here it is, slithering across the floor in this wonderfully ornate Annunciation by Francesco del Cossa in the Gemäldegalerie, Dresden.

  It seems that this snail has caused endless debate in artistic circles, with lame attempts to suggest why the creature might be an attribute of the Virgin Mary. (In the medieval mind it was a symbol of humility, demonstrated by the withdrawal of its horns, though in this respect Cossa's snail is anything but humble.)  
   In a lengthy but fascinating chapter in a book called On n’y voit rien the art historian Daniel Arasse looks at the structure of the painting. God on high and the snail below have a similar shape, and give the picture a sense of balance. In fact, the dove of the Holy Spirit seems to be on a trajectory towards the snail rather than the Virgin Mary. Try putting your finger over the snail and the picture does indeed look unbalanced. 
   But why a snail? Maybe Cossa thought about all those art historians to come, and decided that all their endless agonising might at least keep his picture in the limelight. Or maybe he did it just to annoy them. 

January 2012 - another snail! 
  No, not in the garden eating the veg., but in the National Gallery! Here it is, in Carlo Crivelli's Madonna with Saints Francis and Sebastian
  I'm not sure whether spotting this moves us on in our debate on the symbolism of the snail, and I'll leave writing  a monograph on the iconography of snails to someone else. 
   It's a rather odd picture, isn't it, particularly that dreadful simpering face of St Francis. I quite like Sebastian's 'I can take it, mate', expression though. 

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