Flower Power: Symbols of Status and Reverence

A flower is a thing of beauty but it can also be a symbol of one’s ability to excise power and influence. Let’s examine a few works from the collection and see how flowers have spoken to these societal and cultural concepts.

Our first piece is the Saluting Protective Spirit from 883-859 BC located in the Ancient Near East Gallery 102A. 

This winged protective spirit from Assyria holds what is believed to be blossoms from a palm date tree, a symbol of fertility and prosperity in the ancient kingdom. The rosettes on the wrists are a reference to Ishtar, the goddess of growth, love, and war. The floral crown may also indicate praise for Ishtar, and it may have had a military connotation. This panel is from the palace of Ashurnasirpal II in modern day Iraq. Protective spirits were messengers from the gods; to be blessed by them was to establish one’s sovereignty. 

In the German and Austrian Gothic Gallery 111, we find the Virgin Crowned by Angels c. 1450 by Stefan Lochner.

Iconography is the process by which a symbol stands for an individual or a set of ideas in a given culture. Even without a title, the Gothic audience would have been able to identify the figure in red as the Virgin Mary because of the roses scattered about her. Purple and white stood for her virtue and purity. The roses coupled with the woven screen also suggest an enclosed garden and an earthly paradise. 

In the Islamic Gallery 116 we find a Brocade Silk Cushion Cover & Iranian Striped Silk Surround from the early 1600s.

Ottoman textiles were some of the finest weavings of their day. These luxury goods were used to make clothing and upholster furniture for members of the court and upper class citizens. The central pattern appears to contain a blossom within a blossom. Placing this design square in the center lends a geometric elegance and a regal air to the textile. Tulips, a flower native to the Ottoman Empire, were a popular motif throughout the Islamic world.

Upstairs in Gallery 213 is a painting by Ambrosius Bosschaert that features a dazzling floral arrangement from 1606 titled, Flowers in a Glass.

Four tulips crown the arrangement painted in near photographic detail. The tulip made its way to the Netherlands through trade with Turkey. The flower took well to the northern climate, and it was unlike anything native to the region. Cultivated for their intense colors and tantalizing designs, tulips became a luxury item and a highly prized status symbol for the Dutch. 

Later in the 17th century, the Netherlands would be swept up in the so called "Tulipmania," where a feverish demand for tulip bulbs would send prices soaring.


One of a Pair of Vases from 1736-1795 is on display on the second floor in the Chinese Ceramics Gallery 238.

The peach tree was first cultivated in China and it was considered the Tree of Life- The timber could ward off evil spirits, and peaches from Chinese legend could grant immortality. Prosperity, good health, abundance and marriage are all associated with the fruit, and its flowers are a sign of good luck. Some of the flowers have blossomed, and some of the buds and have not opened just yet.

In the French and German Gallery 216B the museum displays a Louis XV Savonnerie Carpet with Royal Arms, c. 1740-1750 

Savonnerie carpets conveyed the magnificence of the French monarchs for generations. In the center of the grand design on a blue backdrop is the yellow fleur-de-lis. Generally considered a stylized lily, this was a long standing symbol of crown and country by the time Louis XV took power. The delicate floral clusters, along with the red, pink and blue acanthus leaves create a carefree, lighthearted mood to reflect the taste of the king.

While the carpet makes a statement of grandeur and elegance, Louis XV lacked self-confidence and he was an indolent leader. The colorful design gives a sense of energy and order, yet his administration was dysfunctional and frequently in a state of confusion. At times, the king’s actions undercut the public statements of his advisors. 

In the American Modern Gallery 226A hangs Georgia O'Keeffe’s oil on canvas, Morning Glory with Black from 1926.

O'Keeffe is considered the first prominent female Modernist in America, yet she strongly rejected the idea of being specifically labeled a "woman artist." Some critics saw her larger than life paintings as an empowering statement about women, and some saw them (both positively and negatively) as a veiled reference to female sexual anatomy. 

For her part, O'Keeffe was opposed such engendered interpretations of her work. She once wrote, “you hung all your associations with flowers on my flower.” Her paintings raise the question, who has the power to interpret a work of art? The artist? The audience? Historical perspective? Social/cultural movements?

From a botanist’s perspective, flowers do contain the reproductive organs of a plant. To O’Keeffe, “lines and colors [are] an expression of living.” 

On your next visit to the museum, be sure and absorb the flower arrangement in the North Lobby provided by the Womens Council of the Cleveland Museum of Art. Each week, volunteers from the Council create a new presentation that is always fresh and unique.










Guest Author

Hauser, Ben

The Cleveland Museum of Art

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