Three more plants today – and we shall ignore the delicate black slipper and the cloth of gold hem, although the scale at which they are depicted does suggest that we are not looking at a landscape painting, even if the landscape could still play a significant part.
On the left is a broad-leaf plantain, Plantago major, which became known among the Native American peoples as ‘the white man’s footprint,’ because it followed the puritan colonials wherever they went. It was one of the first invasive species to reach the Americas after that most invasive of species, the European. As ‘plantago’ means ‘sole of the foot’ the nickname is entirely apt. It thrives in disturbed soil, and will grow almost anywhere – but especially along roads and paths – and as a result it is symbolic of the ‘well-trodden path’ to Jesus. So a religious setting for our painting seem likely – although it could be just a naturalistic observation.
In the middle is a wild strawberry (Fragaria vesca). This is not especially accurate in its details, but the division of the leaf into three and the five white petals of the flower make this identification secure. Any mention of the number three will inevitably call to mind the Holy Trinity, and the strawberry is also noted for being sweet, but having no thorns or hard stone. As such it wasn’t affected by God’s warning to Adam and Eve after they had eaten the forbidden fruit that, from that point on, the ground would be cursed: ‘Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee’ (Genesis 3:18). Somehow the strawberry missed out on this this curse, and so it is seen as a pre-lapsarian fruit (i.e. from before the fall), a symbol of purity and perfect righteousness.
The final plant is a violet, Viola odorata. Even if it isn’t in bloom, the heart-shaped leaves are a giveaway. And guess what? Violets also have a religious symbolism. The flowers appear to look down, as if they do not want to appear too bold: they are a symbol of humility, and specifically, the humility of the Virgin Mary. Not only did St Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) describe Mary as ‘the violet of humility’, but the colour of the flower is not dissimilar to the deep blue of the ultramarine in which she is so often dressed. You can see this colouristic echo in the detail below from The Wilton Diptych in which the verdant greenery and scattered flowers (accurately depicted, although not to scale) represent the heavenly paradise.
The Wilton Diptych is of course the subject of my next talk in the series Going for Gold, which picks up again on Monday (22 February) after a week’s break. There are still a few spaces left for the talk, which I will give twice, at 2pm and 6pm – follow any of the links for more information. In the meantime, it does look as if, for Lent, we do have a religious painting on our hands. However, as all three of these plants are still very common (in the right places), I’m still not 100% sure that this isn’t just naturalism being employed to draw us into some other type of story. We’ll see…