It is the first day of Lent, and this year I will be giving up abstinence. Well, I say, ‘this year’. To be honest, it’s a sacrifice I’ve been making for the past two decades at least, but there seems no reason to give up giving up now – so much has been given up this year already. Instead, I will perform an act of penance, which will be to write one or two paragraphs (but I hope no more!) about a single detail from a single painting every day of Lent. Inevitably this means that that your penance will be to get an email from me every day. Feel free to delete or ignore at will! As with Advent, I won’t say what it is. The painting is not as familiar, but still one I have enjoyed talking about in the past. If – and when – you recognise it, please do let me know. But try not to name it! Knowing me, it will become all too clear all too soon.
This is a columbine, or aquilegia – Aquilegia vulgaris, to give it its Latin name. It is a perennial herb from the family Ranunculaceae (the ‘buttercup’ family) which is found in the Northern hemisphere growing in meadows and woodlands. As a relatively common plant, it is regularly depicted in art: the artists painted what they knew, after all. Not only that, but it was the most common of plants which became symbolic. It was widely believed that God had made the world specifically for humans, and had also made everything in it to remind us of the fact – so there should be something to learn from everything we see. It could therefore be relevant that the two common names of this plant are both related to birds. ‘Aquilegia’ comes from ‘aquila’, or eagle, because the petals of the flowers were said to look like talons. At the other end of the ‘hawk/dove’ spectrum, ‘columbine’ means ‘dove’ – because the flower as a whole was said to look like five doves flying in formation. It is this aspect of the flower which is important: it is a symbol of the Holy Spirit.
The naturalistic representation of flora and fauna in Western art became more common towards the end of the 14th Century, and is especially favoured in the 15th and early 16th Centuries (and later, of course, in still life painting), which gives us a (very) rough time frame for our painting. However, the leaves are subtly shaded, the tonal values giving us a good idea of their three-dimensional form. This degree of naturalism is seen little before the 1420s, although it does exist, but nevertheless, we should definitely be thinking about the 15th or 16th Centuries. As a reference point, Jan van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece, completed in 1432, has a plethora of spectacularly naturalistic plants. Given that the flower is symbolic of the Holy Spirit, then this could well be a religious painting (it is Lent, after all), but despite this, it could be a naturalistic detail in a portrait, or mythological painting, I suppose. Let’s face it, Titian included one in the bottom right-hand corner of Bacchus and Ariadne (1520-23), next to some horsetail (Equisetum arvense) and an iris (Iris graminea) – see below. As for the other things we see in today’s detail (see above) – well, they don’t do well out of being removed from their context. We’ll come back to them some other time, I presume, and in future posts I’ll just ignore everything that doesn’t seem relevant!