I am innocent, I am pure, I am love.
I am Greek, I am Roman, I come from Japan.
I decorate homes and gardens. I am edible.
I am the resurrection
The calla lily; the flower of major transitions, rebirths and new beginnings. Remarkable for their large trumpet-shaped white flowers, they symbolize purity, sweetness, beauty, and innocence. You have likely spotted classic white calla lilies at a wedding, and that’s because they are traditional symbols of divinity, marital bliss and true love. It is a flower traditionally associated with Easter – to represent hope and new life – and funerals – death not as an end but as a passing into eternal life – as sympathy and purification of the departed soul.
High-standing, proud, elegant, imposing, defined OR over-blown, over-fraganced, over-blousy, over-used? You decide…
In colour: While white naturally says purity and innocence, pink has a connotation of admiration and appreciation. Purple, which is often associated with royalty, denotes passion. Yellow ones can carry a multitude of meanings, orange lily can mean hatred, a yellow one falsehood but these are more typically associated with gratitude. Black calla lilies, which have a striking and dramatic appearance, carry a certain elegance and mystery. Though they are more of a dark purple or maroon than black, they are still highly sought after by gardeners and flower enthusiasts.
Think of the White lily as sweet and innocent like Lily James as Cinderella, or praise-worthy and elegant like Cate Blanchett.
And the Black lily as saint and sinner like Angelina Jolie, or proud and defiant like the Wicked Stepmother.
In Ancient times: It’s no surprise that the name calla lily comes from a Greek word for beauty. There’s more to their significance, though, than just appearance. According to Greek myth, lily was first grown in the earth from the breast milk of Goddess Hera. However ancient Romans believed lilies were created by Juno, the empress of all nature, and associated with their Goddess Venus. It is said that Venus became jealous of lily and thus gave lily a heavy pistil to carry as a punishment.
The importance of lilies to the ancient world can be seen in the frescoes of the time;
The ‘Prince with Lilies’ wears a Minoan loincloth, a necklace of lilies, a crown of lilies and peacock feathers. He is thought to represent the Priest King of Knossos also known as the ‘Priest King’. With his left hand, he was probably holding a sacred animal, possibly a sphinx or a griffin. The original fresco, found in the palace at Knossos in Crete, is now in the Museum at Heraklion and dates to c. 1500BC.
This fresco, also known as the Spring Fresco, depicts either papyrus or lilies growing amongst colourful volcanic rocks with swallows flying between the flowers. The lilies seem to be swaying in a gentle breeze and the flowers are depicted in various stages of growth from bud to full bloom. (National Archaeological Museum, Athens).
It is also said that in ancient times lilies sprouted from the graves of people who had been executed for crimes they didn’t commit.
In Christianity: Lilies feature prominently in the Bible. When Eve was expelled from the Garden of Eden she shed tears of repentance, and from those remorseful tears sprung lilies. Often called the “white-robed apostles of hope” lilies were also found growing in the Garden of Gethsemane after Christ’s crucifixion. They are also said to have sprung up where drops of Christ’s sweat fell to the ground from the cross. And hence are associated with Easter; a symbol of the resurrection .
In many paintings and other works of art throughout history, the calla lily has been depicted with the Virgin Mary or Angel of Annunciation – symbolic now of holiness, faith and purity, virginity.
In poetry: William Blake used the lily as a symbol of love which is without any self–reference, neither defending itself or causing any pain and destruction.
The modest Rose puts forth a thorn,
The humble sheep a threat’ning horn:
While the Lily white shall in love delight,
Nor a thorn nor a threat stain her beauty bright.
Songs of Experience 1794
From Japan: Easter lilies are native to the Ryukyu Islands of southern Japan, and the islands of Okinawa, Amani and Erabu. The flowers were introduced to England in 1819.
Lilies of Japan Catalogue (1922)
When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, the Japanese source of lilies was cut off causing a bulb rush in California. Indeed the Easter lily bulbs at that time were called “White Gold,” and growers everywhere attempted to cash in on the crop. By 1945, there were around 1,200 growers up and down the Pacific coast, from Vancouver, Canada to Long Beach, California. Now the number of Easter lily bulb producers has diminished to just ten farms in an isolated coastal region on the Oregon-California border called the Easter Lily Capital of the World.
In Victoriana: Floriography, the ‘language of flowers’ was used during the 19th century as a form of coded communication. Through flowers and floral arrangements, people could express feelings which otherwise could not be spoken. The Romans used lilies to fill pillows and quilts because of its lovely scent. Lilies thereby became the source of the fragrance of love. If a lady was given this sweet-scented flower, she knew she had a paramour.
The Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood explored this flower symbolism in their impressionistic paintings. In defiant opposition to the utilitarian ethos that formed the dominant ideology of the mid-century, the Pre-Raphaelites helped to popularise the notion of ‘art for art’s sake’. Generally devoid of the political edge that characterised much Victorian art and literature, Pre-Raphaelite work nevertheless incorporated elements of 19th-century realism in its attention to detail and in its close observation of the natural world.
One of the most famous is this; Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose, by John Singer Sargent 1885 (Tate Britain).
The lily became connected with feminine sexuality, again a theme explored by the pre-Raphaelites, especially Walter Crane (1845-1915)
As symbol: Lilies were also an oft-used motif of the art-nouveau movement (1880-1910). Artists drew inspiration from both organic and geometric forms, evolving elegant designs that united flowing, natural forms resembling the stems and blossoms of plants. The emphasis on linear contours took precedence over colour, the designs were graphic and strident.
In the 1940s Mexican artist Diego Rivera (husband of Frida Kahlo) painted motifs like calla lilies so often they became his signature. Here lilies represent the stunning flora of Mexico but also as signifiers of the different lives between rich and poor (the peasant at work to provide luxuries for the wealthy.) Like the lily the paintings are structured to be both humble and reverential.
In Literature: ‘Lillies of the field’ has come to maean effortless beauty or nourishment or riches; from the biblical; worry not, God will provide (‘And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow. They do not toil, neither do they spin’. Matthew 6:28); and the satirical; the rich and idle (‘Like the lilies in the field, they toiled not nor did they spin, they just existed beautifully.’ P.G.Wodehouse).
And the 1963 Oscar winning film, Lilies of the Field, starred Sidney Poitier as a travelling handyman who answers the prayers of nuns wishing to build a chapel in the desert.
In Food: Chinese lily flowers or lily buds are the secret ingredient in Chinese hot and sour soup. The yellow stems are known as dried yellow flower vegetable, golden needles, day lily bulbs, day lilies and day lily buds. The dried lily buds or lily flowers bring a sweet tea-like aroma and crunch to soups and steamed dishes.
In the Garden: The aristocrats of the border, Lilies are the most dramatic of all summer bulbs and many are easy to grow in the garden. To get the best from them it’s worth remembering that most like cool, shady roots and sunshine on their faces. And they come back again and again. How to grow lilies.
Lilies continue to be a favoured theme to buy as decorative art; https://www.saatchiart.com/all?query=lily&page=3
Featured image: Moorcroft Cards Calla Lily