Thursday, September 24, 2009

Flowers and Saint Thérèse of Lisieux

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1841-1919
Bouquet de Chrysanthèmes/ Bouquet of Chrysanthemums c. 1884
Oil on canvas
81 cm x 65 cm
Musée des Beaux-Arts, Rouen

Claude Monet (1840-1926)
Chrysanthèmes / Chrysanthemums 1897
Signed and dated 'Claude Monet 97' (lower left)
Oil on canvas
51¼ x 34 7/8 in. (130.1 x 88.5 cm.)
Private collection

Claude Monet 1840-1926
Le jardin de l'artiste à Giverny 1900
Oil on canvas L. 0,92 ; H. 0,81 metres
Musée d'Orsay, Paris

Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890)
The Courtyard of the Hospital at Arles, 1889
Oil on canvas
The Oskar Reinhart collection ‘Am Römerholz’
Winterthur, Switzerland

Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890)
Roses et anémones 1890
Oil on canvas 51.7 H ; 52 L
Musée d'Orsay, Paris

The nineteenth century created a complete and now almost forgotten ‘language of flowers’, in which every plant had a distinct character and sentimental meaning. In Europe there started a new form of literature: flower books. Flowers and their depiction became a desirable commodity on a mass scale. The Romantic Movement with its emphasis on Nature was one of the reasons for this interest throughout the nineteenth century.

Some flowers can have a symbolic meaning, like the lily and the rose, which are both associated with the Virgin Mary

Traditionally, violets have symbolised faithfulness and modesty

Water lilies have symbolised purity of heart

Cornflowers represented refinement and delicacy

As regards the pansy: the name is derived from the French ‘pensèr’, to think. Pansies symbolise thought and remembrance.

However, there was not one set of meanings which everyone knew or subscribed to.

The first language of flowers book was probably B. Delachenaye's Abecedaire de Flore ou langage des fleurs, published in 1810.

The publication of Charlotte de Latour's Le Langage des Fleurs in December 1819, was the beginning of the great proliferation of language of flowers books first in France, then Germany, then Britain and latterly the United States.

One of the most familiar of language of flower books was Routledge's edition illustrated by Kate Greenaway, The Language of Flowers, which was first published in 1884

We seem to have lost this fascination and interest in flowers. Nowadays from the perspective of the cynical twenty first century, the attitudes of the Victorians vis-a-vis flowers appear hopelessly cloying and sentimental, and perhaps also childish and lacking in true feeling.

But flowers are among the universal symbols used in art. They appeal to the senses. The colours and shapes strike the optic nerve and the smell can penetrate the brain as if it is almost a taste.

Their fragility, colour, smell, form, habit of growth, or use in healing have all suggested symbolic meanings for writers and artists

Their moment of glory is fleeting, and in that way became a representative of life itself.

To capture so elusive a subject is a challenge indeed, and makes the words of John Ruskin completely understandable:
“If you can paint one leaf you can paint the world.” (5 Complete Works, “Of Leaf Beauty”: Bryan, Taylor & Co. 1894, p. 61).

Pierre-Auguste Renoir is credited with once saying of his flower pictures,
ʺWhat seems to me most significant about our movement [Impressionism] is that… I am at liberty to paint flowers and call them flowers, without their needing to tell a story.ʺ

On the day he died, Renoir was still at work, painting a bouquet of anemones cut from his garden. The last words he spoke were about his flower painting, “I think I am beginning to understand something about it.”

They have fascinated artists. Monet`s garden at Givenchy is probably the most extreme example.

Following a visit to Giverny, Gustave Geffroy published a detailed description of Monet's gardens, which explicitly mentions the presence of chrysanthemums:

"As soon as you push the little entrance gate, on the main street of Giverny, you think, in almost all seasons, that you are entering a paradise. It is the colorful and fragrant kingdom of flowers. Each month is adorned with its flowers, from the lilacs and irises to the chrysanthemums and nasturtiums. The azaleas, the hydrangeas, the foxglove, the forget-me-nots, the violets, the sumptuous flowers and the modest ones mingle and follow one another on this ever-ready soil, wonderfully tended by experienced gardeners under the infallible eye of the master" (G. Geoffroy, Claude Monet, sa vie, son temps, son oeuvre, Paris, 1922., quoted in P.H. Tucker, Claude Monet: Life and Art, New Haven, 1995 p. 206).

In religion, Our Lord referred to them in his teaching:

'Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.'
- Matthew 6:28-33

In The Autobiography of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, flowers proliferate. It is a sign of the times in which it was written and in which she lived, The imagery of flowers dominate the book. The memoir was entitled by herself: “The Story of the Springtime of a Little White Flower”

In Chapter 1 regarding her earliest childhood she wrote:

“I often asked myself why God had preferences, why all souls did not receive an equal measure of grace. I was filled with wonder when I saw extraordinary favours showered on great sinners like St. Paul, St. Augustine, St. Mary Magdalen, and many others, whom He forced, so to speak, to receive His grace. In reading the lives of the Saints I was surprised to see that there were certain privileged souls, whom Our Lord favoured from the cradle to the grave, allowing no obstacle in their path which might keep them from mounting towards Him, permitting no sin to soil the spotless brightness of their baptismal robe. And again it puzzled me why so many poor savages should die without having even heard the name of

Our Lord has deigned to explain this mystery to me. He showed me the book of nature, and I understood that every flower created by Him is beautiful, that the brilliance of the rose and the whiteness of the lily do not lessen the perfume of the violet or the sweet simplicity of the daisy. I understood that if all the lowly flowers wished to be roses, nature would lose its springtide beauty, and the fields would no longer be enamelled with lovely hues.

And so it is in the world of souls, Our Lord’s living garden. He has been pleased to create great Saints, who may be compared to the lily and the rose, but He has also created lesser ones, who must be content to be daisies or simple violets flowering at His Feet, and whose mission it is to gladden His Divine Eyes when He deigns to look down on them. And the more gladly they do His Will the greater is their perfection. ...

I understood this also, that God’s Love is made manifest as well in a simple soul which does not resist His grace as in one more highly endowed. In fact, the characteristic of love being self-abasement, if all souls resembled the holy Doctors who have illuminated the Church, it seems that God in coming to them would not stoop low enough. But He has created the little child, who knows nothing and can but utter feeble cries, and the poor savage who has only the natural law to guide him, and it is to their hearts that He deigns to stoop. These are the field flowers whose simplicity charms Him; and by His condescension to them Our Saviour shows His infinite greatness. As the sun shines both on the cedar and on the floweret, so the Divine Sun illumines every soul, great and small, and all correspond to His care—just as in nature the seasons are so disposed that on the appointed day the humblest daisy shall unfold its petals ...

I am now at a time of life when I can look back on the past, for my soul has been refined in the crucible of interior and exterior trials. Now,like a flower after the storm, I can raise my head and see that the words of the Psalm are realized in me:

“The Lord is my Shepherd and I shall want nothing.
He has set me in a place of pasture.
He has brought me up on the water of refreshment.
He has converted my soul.
He has led me on the paths of justice for His own Name’s sake.
For though I should walk in the midst of the shadow of death, I will
fear no evils for Thou art with me.” (cf. Psalms 23). ...

Yes, to me Our Lord has always been: “compassionate and merciful, long-suffering and plenteous in mercy.” (cf. Psalms 103:8).

And so it gives me great joy, dear Mother, to come to you and sing His unspeakable mercies. It is for you alone that I write the story of the little flower gathered by Jesus. This thought will help me to speak freely, without troubling either about style or about the many digressions that I shall make; for a Mother’s heart always understands her child, even when it can only lisp, and so I am sure of being understood and my meaning appreciated.

If a little flower could speak, it seems to me that it would tell us quite simply all that God has done for it, without hiding any of its gifts. It would not, under the pretext of humility, say that it was not pretty, or that it had not a sweet scent, that the sun had withered its petals, or the storm bruised its stem, if it knew that such were not the case.

The Little Flower, that now tells her tale, rejoices in having to publish the wholly undeserved favours bestowed upon her by Our Lord. She knows that she had nothing in herself worthy of attracting Him: His Mercy alone showered blessings on her.

He allowed her to grow in holy soil enriched with the odour of purity, and preceded by eight lilies [Note. – A reference to the eight brothers and sisters who were born before her] of shining whiteness. In His Love He willed to preserve her from the poisoned breath of the world—hardly had her petals unfolded when this good Master transplanted her to the mountain of Carmel, Our Lady’s chosen garden....

How quickly those sunny years of my childhood passed away, and what tender memories they have imprinted on my mind! I remember the Sunday walks when my dear Mother always accompanied us; and I can still feel the impression made on my childish heart at the sight of the fields bright with cornflowers, poppies, and marguerites. Even at that age I loved far-stretching views, sunlit spaces and stately trees; in a word, all nature charmed me and lifted up my soul to Heaven.

Often, during these walks, we met poor people. I was always chosen to give them an alms, which made me feel very happy. Sometimes, my dear Father, knowing the way was too long for his little Queen, took me home. This was a cause of grief, and to console me Céline would fill her basket with daisies, and give them to me on her return.

Truly everything on earth smiled on me; I found flowers strewn at every step, and my naturally happy disposition helped to make life bright. But a new era was about to dawn.

I was to be the Spouse of Our Lord at such an early age that it was necessary I should suffer from my childhood. As the early spring flowers begin to come up under the snow and open at the first rays of the sun, so the Little Flower whose story I am writing had to pass through the winter of trial and to have her tender cup filled with the dew of tears.”

As Pope John Paul II said in his Apostolic Letter, Divini Amoris Scientia (19th October 1997):

"If considered in its literary genre, corresponding to her education and culture, and if evaluated according to the particular circumstances of her era, the doctrine of Thérèse of Lisieux appears in providential harmony with the Church's most authentic tradition, both for its confession of the Catholic faith and for its promotion of the most genuine spiritual life, presented to all the faithful in a living, accessible language"

However, if you find the language and imagery syrupy and too sweet, and prefer something more sophisticated look at another vision of flowers, again from 19th century France in Les Fleurs du mal (often translated as The Flowers of Evil), a volume of French poetry by Charles Baudelaire.

First published in 1857, it was important in the symbolist and modernist movements. The subject matter of these poems deals with themes relating to decadence and eroticism

The foreword to the volume, identifying Satan with the pseudonymous alchemist Hermes Trismegistus and calling boredom the worst of miseries, neatly sets the general tone of what is to follow:

Si le viol, le poison, le poignard, l'incendie,
N'ont pas encore brodé de leurs plaisants dessins
Le canevas banal de nos piteux destins,
C'est que notre âme, hélas! n'est pas assez hardie.

If rape and poison, dagger and burning,
Have still not embroidered their pleasant designs
On the banal canvas of our pitiable destinies,
It's because our souls, alas, are not bold enough!

The preface concludes with the following malediction:

C'est l'Ennui! —l'œil chargé d'un pleur involontaire,
Il rêve d'échafauds en fumant son houka.
Tu le connais, lecteur, ce monstre délicat,
—Hypocrite lecteur,—mon semblable,—mon frère!

It's Ennui! — his eye brimming with spontaneous tear
He dreams of the gallows in the haze of his hookah.
You know him, reader, this delicate monster,
Hypocritical reader, my likeness, my brother!

I shall leave you to judge which vision is preferable.


  1. This is a great post. I love thinking about the symbolism of the flower, especially as it appears in Northern Renaissance art. I think my favorite depiction is Campin's Annunciation altarpiece, in which Mary is depicted near a vase of day lilies. Like the water lilies (that you mentioned), these day lilies also had associations with purity, which emphasized the purity of the Virgin in Campin's work.

    I think you are right; there is a lost interest and fascination with flowers, especially in recent art. Off the top of my head, I can only think of one 20th century artist that maintained a keen interest in flowers: Georgia O'Keefe.

  2. Thank you
    Hopefully artistic interest in flowers will revive. The question is: Why did the interest in flowers decline ?

  3. Many thanks for this beautiful post. The best I have yet seen around St. Therese at this time. As to the suggestion that interest in flowers is low these days, I would argue the opposite. I am a Yorkshireman and spent some time in Harrogate where people loved to see the crocuses on the Stray or visit the Valley Gardens.
    I think what has happened is that people - in general - are too interested in entertainment (by this I mean more than TV, since sex itself has become entertainment). There is a lack of refinement and a lack of subtlety and I think this may reflect on some people's indifference to flowers or a lack of appreciation of the variety of flowers.
    Your post gives us a lot to think about.

  4. Father

    Many thanks for your very kind comments. I hope your are right and that I am wrong in describing people`s interest in flowers. At the moment I am in South London and a lot of the South London Boroughs (with a few notable exceptions) are covered over in concrete, roads, houses and other buildings. There are few plants. Many of the municipal parks are just grass or too dangerous to spend much time in. Green areas do not have economic value. Houses and shops do.

    You are right to say that there is too much emphasis on instant gratification and consumption. Appreciation of the finer and the more important things in life (including flowers) is definitely way down people`s agendas.