/educators/lessons/grade-6-8/Medieval_and_Renaissance Art

Medieval and Renaissance Art: Botanical Symbolism

How was the symbolism of flowers relevant to Medieval and Renaissance art?


Key Staff

This lesson can be implemented by anyone who teaches visual arts, social studies, science, or language arts depending on their objectives.

Key Skills

Global Connections: Connecting to History and Culture
Making Art: Composing and Planning, Producing, Executing and Performing
Developing Arts Literacies: Understanding Genres, Analyzing and Evaluating - Critique


For the medieval and the renaissance artists, flowers were part of a rich visual symbolism. In this lesson, students explore how botanical illustrations contribute to the telling of story in a 12th, 13th and 14th century religious painting. Students will learn about these symbolic flowers and discuss their connotations. The examination of plant representation in illuminated manuscripts, Books of Hours, miniatures, and paintings is used as a means of learning the botanical symbolism, and developing students' artistic impressions of flowers. Students will also gain knowledge of the science of flowers and their structural qualities.

Learning Objectives

Students will:

  • learn what a Mary Garden is and its significance in medieval history and renaissance art.
  • identify flowers and learn their symbolism.
  • examine botanical illustrations found in illuminated manuscripts, Books of Hours, and paintings.
  • interpret the meaning of flowers in a painting.
  • create a personal representation of their favorite symbolic flowers in a grouping.
  • learn the botanical properties of flowers.

Teaching Approach

Arts Integration

Teaching Methods

  • Hands-On Learning
  • Visual Instruction
  • Multimedia Instruction

Assessment Type

Determined by Teacher


What You'll Need

Required Technology
  • 1 Computer per Classroom
  • Internet Access
Lesson Setup

Teacher Background

This lesson is designed to help students understand the symbolism of flowers as depicted by Medieval and Renaissance artists. After students familiarize themselves with the flowers’ meanings, they will create their own drawings and paintings replete with botanical symbolism.

Prior Student Knowledge

Familiarity with Medieval and Renaissance periods

Familiarity with the parts of a flower

Familiarity with the concept of symbolism

Physical Space

  • Classroom
  • Computer Lab


  • Large Group Instruction
  • Individualized Instruction


Create a mini-gallery, displaying pictures of the various types of flowers to be discussed. Pictures can be obtained from calendars of flowers, gardening magazines or gardening/floral catalogs.

Display a vase of mixed flowers at the front of the room on a table. It would be best to display real flowers in the vase if possible. This way you can also use them later in the lesson to demonstrate the parts of a flower. If you have a wholesale florist in your area you might contact them to see if they would donate a variety of flowers for your lesson. A large-scale florist shop might also do the same. Otherwise, you can use dried silk or plastic.

Accessibility Notes

Students with physical disabilities may need modified movements.


Resources in Reach

Here are the resources you'll need for each activity, in order of instruction.

Build Knowledge


1. Discuss student responses to the flowers at the front of the room. Ask students how they felt when they saw the vase of mixed flowers. Ask them what thoughts came to their mind:

  • What feelings do the flowers evoke?
  • Do the flowers make you smile or stir up old memories?
  • Do you want to touch or smell the flowers?
  • Do you like the way they look?
  • Did you wonder why the flowers are there?
  • Have a student record the answers on the board or a flip chart to refer to later.

2. Using the botanical illustrations you have placed around the room, review with the students the names of the flowers and discuss their attributes according to form, color, texture, and season of bloom. Have students record their answers on the Attributes of a Flower Chart worksheet that can be found within the Resource Carousel to refer to at a later time in the lesson.

3. Bring your students to the computer lab (or, if Internet access is not available, continue onward to the next worksheet activity.) Review the interactive quiz, The Great Plant Escape, and allow the students to review the flower parts.

4. Distribute Naturegrid.org's Flower Parts worksheet to the students and have them follow along as you review the parts of the flower. If you have been able to obtain real flowers, distribute one to each student so that they can follow along with the discussion.

5. Explain that flowers also have a symbolism associated with them. Ask students if they have heard any expressions related to flowers and attributes. List a couple on the board and ask if they can come up with any other examples.

  • "Pure as a lily"
  • "Rose of beauty"
  • "Modest as a violet"
  • "Fresh as a daisy"

These evolved from the "meaning" of flowers during the medieval and renaissance time. The examples in the Modern Flowers' Attributes student guide shows you emotional meanings attached to them in our day and time. Discuss these meanings with the students. What attributes do the flowers themselves have that would give them the symbols attached to their name? Students should realize that many flowers had been known by symbolic meanings since the days of antiquity. Most of their attributes had been linked to mythological deities like Venus, Diana, Jupiter and Apollo. Many flowers were venerated not only for their beauty but also for their religious significance.

6. Distribute the Floral Messages worksheet located within the Resource Carousel. Ask students to work in pairs or small groups to determine the most appropriate flower for each scenario. Ask students to share their responses with the rest of the class. Share with students some quotes and poems about flowers.

Build Knowledge

NOTE: With the Renaissance's heavy reliance on Classical and religious themes, many saw the world of Nature as a mirror of the Divine. During the Renaissance most all art depicted religious themes.

1. Explain that from the 12th century botanical symbolism started in France and continued to be seen in the early Renaissance in many Italian paintings in the 14th century. Many artists found ultimate expression of flowers and foliage in stone, wood and metal. These artists "wreathed their capitals with leaves and branches of natural vegetation and adorned their walls with growing plants and the orchard." Among those identified were columbines, roses, lilies, snapdragons, primroses, and lily of the valleys, violets, daisies and many more. During this time patrons supported artists. Patrons usually fell into two categories: wealthy merchants like the Medici family or members of the church. Saints and stories from the bible were rich subjects for the work of these artists.

2. Explain that, because of their symbolism, many of these flowers were used by artists in their paintings related to the Virgin's life. The Virgin became a central figure not only in subject matter for paintings but also in what were called Mary Gardens. These were small secret gardens within a garden. The secret garden had great symbolic meaning in its representation of not only Eden but the purity of Mary. It has its recorded origins in medieval and renaissance religious art in which prints and then paintings of the Virgin and Child are depicted in an enclosed garden surrounded by symbolical flowers.

3. Show students the Mary Gardens.

4. Tell students that they will be drawing a plan for their own Mary Garden. Distribute the Mary Garden plan paper and give students time to design and color their gardens.


1. Bring your students to the computer lab (or, if Internet access is not available, provide printed images from the National Gallery Web site). First, visit the Online Tour of the exhibit "The Flowering of Florence: Botanical Art for the Medici" which shows the wide variety of decorative art objects representing plants, fruits, and flowers from the Medici collection. These are straightforward, non-symbolic images of flowers that emphasize the Renaissance love of science and Classical learning.

2. Next, direct students to the images in the National Gallery of Art's collection, particularly those in the Online Tour. Notice the difference in treatment of flowers in religious images; they are treated in flat colors, often at unnatural angles or growing in places they could not realistically grow. You may wish to review the following paintings with your students:

3. Using the botanical illustrations and handout list of flowers as references, ask students to make a list of the flowers that they would like to have in a garden, and include their meaning. Students should choose flowers by symbolic meaning in order to plan a garden with a theme. The garden should tell a story through its symbolic message. Have them go back and look over what they chose. Does it accomplish the goal?


1. Distribute supplies including sheets of newsprint paper for sketching, watercolor paper, water-colored pencils, water color paints, brushes, cups of water, and paper towels to each student (if supplies are limited, 2 or 3 students can share).

2. Students will create their own impressionistic painting of a favorite flower. Have the students begin to think about the composition of the piece. Have them do several thumbnail sketches. Refer to your elements and principles of design. Demonstrate different painting techniques. Allow students to share their illustrations, explaining why they chose to paint this particular flower and define its symbolism. Have students write an artist’s statement about their work.


Assess the student's work using the Assessment Rubric located within the Resource Carousel.


Throughout the nation, standards of learning are being revised, published and adopted. During this time of transition, ARTSEDGE will continually add connections to the Common Core, Next Generation Science standards and other standards to our existing lessons, in addition to the previous versions of the National Standards across the subject areas.

The Arts Standards used in ARTSEDGE Lessons are the 1994 voluntary national arts standards. The Arts learning standards were revised in 2014; please visit the National Core Arts Standards (http://nationalartsstandards.org) for more. The Kennedy Center is working on developing new lessons to connect to these standards, while maintaining the existing lesson library aligned to the Common Core, other state standards, and the 1994 National Standards for Arts Education.

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Daniella Garran
Original Writer

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