Symbols of ‘love’ through art

Embracing February, the month of ‘Love’, we treat our loved ones with gifts and acts of kindness. In this article we look at some of the symbols of love used throughout the history of Eastern and Western Art. Artists from different cultures have been united by themes of love, passion and devotion, openly or symbolically in their paintings, sculptures, sonnets and poems. Paintings that are familiar to us may use many symbols to create deeper meanings within the more obvious narratives. 

In this article we look at some well known paintings and take a closer look at how artists’ have communicated their feelings with us on a visually stimulating and personal level. We look at various themes that depict or symbolise love and affection. And look at some iconographic symbols that may not be so familiar to you but will explain the painting more clearly.

Symbols of love in paintings

Honeysuckle

Peter Paul Rubens ‘Honeysuckle Bower c.1609

Honeysuckle has been used as a symbol of love and generosity. It’s small blossoming highly scented flowers represent beauty, gentility and the blossoming feelings of love. Honeysuckle is a climbing plant which grows clinging to walls and fences, having a strong hold of its habitat represents loyalty and devotion. Old tales and superstitions alleged that honeysuckle flowers were lucky and could protect your garden from evil! Peter Paul Rubens has surrounded himself and his new wife with honeysuckle in his self portrait painting, entitled ‘Honeysuckle Bower’ c.1609. They tenderly hold each other's right hand representing the union of marriage. They are relaxed and comfortable with each other, sitting in a garden blooming with flowers. Rubens leans towards his love with legs crossed, implying he is relaxed and in love, however if you look closely, Rubens has his left hand on the hilt of his sword, ready to defend his love and marriage and protect his bride depicting himself to be a true aristocratic gentleman. This painting is very different from the usual 17th century formal marriage paintings of the time.

Strawberries

Madonna amid the Strawberries, Master of the Upper, c.1425 

In Ancient Rome strawberries were considered to be the symbol of ‘Venus’ the goddess of love. Because of their bright red colour, sweet taste and many exterior seeds they also became a symbol of fertility. They were believed to be an aphrodisiac and if two people split a strawberry, they would fall in love! In Christianity, strawberries were carved into church altars and cathedral pillars during mediaeval times as a symbol of righteousness and perfection. Also across mediaeval Europe strawberries were used in many paintings depicting the Virgin Mary and the Resurrection, as well as in the illuminations on manuscripts. Their three leaves represented the Trinity, their fruits were drops of Christ's blood and the five pure white petals of their flowers represented the five wounds of the passion. 

Apples

'The Judgement of Paris' Peter Paul Rubens, c.1638

Apples are used in many religious paintings. They represent a symbol of love, desire and abundance. In Norse mythology apples were eaten to ward off disease and retain beauty and in Chinese culture apple blossoms represent adoration. Rubens used this story from Greek mythology ‘Judgement of Paris’ several times over his career as it allowed him to display his ideal of female beauty and also to consider the consequences of love and passion.

Dogs

‘The Arnolfini Portrait’ also known as ‘The Arnolfini Wedding’ Jan van Eyck c. 1434

A dog pictured in a 15th-century engagement painting represented the loyalty and faithfulness of the couple's bond for each other. A dog would usually be painted at the feet of the happy couple. A fine example of this can be seen in the painting ‘The Arnolfini Portrait’ by Jan van Eyck c. 1434. Other symbols used depict wealth, like the large chandelier, an orange placed near the window, lavish fabrics and interior furnishings. 

Doves

'Love’s Messenger' 1885 Watercolour artist Marie Spartaili Stillman

Doves have long been associated with love and peace. Doves mate for a lifetime and have come to symbolise fidelity. Two doves depicted together represent everlasting and eternal love. Doves were considered sacred animals in Greek and Roman mythology. Doves are a well known Christian symbol of Christ's peace and love. In Hindu tradition the dove symbolises the heart’s limitless capacity for love. In this painting Love’s Messenger, there are many symbolic references. The symbols portrayed include the dove, roses and ivy and a blind-folded cupid embroidery. The woman stands at an open window to receive the love letter brought by the dove. The symbols portray fidelity and beauty in full bloom. But also the pain of Cupid’s arrows. Spartali Stillman was a British painter of Greek descent and was a notable female artist during the Pre-raphaelite movement. Spartali Stillman produced many works of art and contributed to many exhibitions in both Britain and the United States. She was inspired by Shakespeare, and the works of Petrarch, Dante and Boccaccio.

Swans

'Lohengrin or Swan King' by Walter Crane (1845-1915)

In Greek and Roman mythology, the swan serves as a symbol of beauty, love, light and grace. The swan stood for the soul and was linked to Apollo, the god of the Sun. In other religions some believe the swan is a feminine symbol of the moon. A popular depiction of love are two swans facing each other. Swans mate for life symbolises everlasting and enduring love. Walter Crane was an English artist and book illustrator. He was part of the Arts and Crafts movement and as a member produced many paintings, illustrations, children’s books, ceramic tiles, wallpapers and other decorative arts. Swan King is a mediaeval tale about a knight who comes in a swan-drawn boat to defend a damsel in distress.

Music as a metaphor for Love

Pierre-Auguste Renoir ‘Dance in the Country’ c.1883

In Renoir’s painting ‘Dance in the country’ the young couple have risen from their luncheon to dance in a tender embrace. The young woman holds an open fan but there is no hiding her face from the complete blissfulness she is feeling as she looks out to the viewers with a broad smile. A Romantic and energetic painting echoed in their body language, luminous warm palette and saturated colours. Movement is also suggested in the gentlemans hat on the floor and the swish of fabric on the woman's dress. It is as though Renoir has painted the model Aline Charigot under a warm spotlight, almost angelic, contrasted by the dark hues of the gentleman’s suit and surrounding shrubbery. Renoir made her the centre of attention in this composition and her gaze was probably for him, it is no wonder that she was later to become more than a model but his future wife! 

‘The Scale of Love’ by Jean-Antoine Watteau  1717-18 Oil on canvas.
‘The Scale of Love’ by Jean-Antoine Watteau (1717-1718)

In this painting by Watteau, there are many symbolic references to represent love, the act of flirtation and lovers. He makes reference to the musical scale in the title, in terms of the many stages of flirting and seduction. He paints a musician totally captivated by the young maiden sitting at his feet and she with him. The use of pink satine, red velvet and russet browns are prominent and almost tactile in their detailed application. The warm palette is comforting and harmonious. Framed by trailing vines, leaves and trees, suggesting intimacy and a private meeting. The bust behind the musician's head is thought to be of Pythagoras, who is credited with discovering a musical scale based upon a mathematical ratio. The musical instrument takes the central point of the composition with all diagonal references leading you to this. Maybe implying that music be the food of love? There are other figures in this painting, one couple are leaving, maybe referencing the same couple but in the future? Another couple sit further away from the others and can be seen in the distance on the right of the painting. The group sat behind the musician are deep in their own discussions whilst the child is resting on the lap of a woman maybe listening to the sweet music playing. In a similar engraving of lovers by Watteau where children are depicted, it is implied that they may be the fruits of tender love. 

Flowers of love

Marc Chagall used many flower bouquets in his paintings of lovers, in a celebration of love and passion. He also used them to represent grief and loss. In his painting ‘Bouquet with Flying Lovers’ painted in the mid 1930s, we see two lovers hovering behind a large vase of flowers, roses and Lilies, whilst an angel flies in from the window. Chagall’s wife had recently died before he started to re-paint this picture which took him many years to complete. Chagall’s work is not confined to traditional Western perspective or sensibilities of scale. Instead he provides us with sensual, magical narratives, bursting with colour, floating lovers, animals, and iconic places drifting through the sky like music notes floating away.

Marc Chagall (1887-1985) ‘Birthday’ c 1915

Roses and their meaning

Roses are one of the most universal symbols of love and passion. Also known as ‘the Queen of flowers’ red represents a passionate love and physical desire. Pink represents infatuation and true love. Yellow represents friendship and a joyful love and white, depicts a divine or an innocent and pure love. The painting below will provide a different perspective on the use of Roses with a most unusual narrative.

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, ‘The Roses of Heliogabalus’  c. 1888

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema in his painting ‘The Roses of Heliogabalus’ describes an event that took place during the short reign of Heliogabalus, an infamous Roman Emperor. On first appearance the guests of this classically themed painting seem to be showered with roses and rose petals during an elaborate party. In this exquisitely painted scene Alma-Tadema has used roses as a symbol of lust and desire as stated in the Victorian language of flowers and meanings. It is believed in reality violets were used but in Victorian society they represented faithfulness and modesty. 

The Emperor looks on at the suffocating party goers and continues to drink his wine as they are now his entertainment! Morality and propriety have been challenged and are ultimately punished by death, lust smothered by the lustful rose petals. When this painting was exhibited in 1888, at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition it was very popular.

In Roman Imperial history, Heliogabalus was Roman Emperor from AD 218  to 222. He was so controversial and hated that at the age of 18 he was assassinated by his own family. 

Sunflowers

Sunflowers that follow the sun are used to symbolise foolish love, passion and infatuation. Many still associate sunflowers with worship and adoration., symbolising unwavering faith and unconditional love.

  • Maple leaf- maple leaf represents the sweetness and wonder of love.
  • Jasmine - represents love, good luck and purity.
  • Cupids - represents undying love and desire.
  • Harps - represents love, hope and healing.

Shells

Shell and conch shells are associated with Aphrodite, the goddess of Love. Seashells have come to represent the protectiveness and journey of love and their hard casing protects the precious pearl that grows inside the shell of a mollusk.

The Kiss - the ultimate symbol of love and affection.

Gustav Klimt - The Kiss formerly known as ‘The Lovers’  c.1907-1908

Our final painting for this article has to be ‘The Kiss’ by Gustav Klimt. Gustave Klimt was an Austrian symbolist painter, taking influences from the Art Nouveau style and the Arts and Crafts movement, he was part of the Vienna secession. Klimt depicts a couple locked in a passionate embrace, both wearing beautifully decorated and ornate robes, kneeling on the verge of a colourful flowering garden or meadow. Love, intimacy and romance are recurring and common themes found in Gustav Klimt’s work. The man wears a crown of vines, while the woman wears a crown of flowers. This painting is more akin to a Japanese print with its simple central format rather than providing the spectator with a composition structured with traditional western perspective. A simple background ensures the focus on the entwined lovers is un-interrupted.