Nature itself is the best physician: The symbolism of botany within artwork
12 April 2018
For thousands of years, medicinal plants have been used in various cultures of the world as a safe therapeutic modality. Evidence of humans’ interaction with medicinal plants can be traced as far back as the conception human civilisation itself (1). Contemporary science has since acknowledged the active action of these plants, and it has included in modern pharmacotherapy a range of drugs of plant origin, known by ancient civilizations and used throughout the millennia (2).
Margaret Kreig’s ‘Green Medicine’ 1965 (3), was the first in-depth exploration of the modern world-wide resurgence of scientific interest in medicinal plants. In an era where synthetic compounds were becoming increasingly common she not only reviewed the history of medicinal botany, but the scientific methods of botanical scouts and the then-frontiers of research such as the discovery of ‘mental drugs’ like LSD.
This resurgence has continued to this day, perhaps not through popularity but though necessity, as previous therapeutics we as society are reliant on, notably antibiotics, are failed to be built upon by synthetic means. We are now scrambling back to scour what is left of the natural environment we destroyed to exploit exotic and overlooked natural sources of medicinal power. Just earlier this year a research group exploited the discovery of malacidins, a type of antibiotic commonly encoded in soil microbiomes that are active against multidrug-resistant pathogens such as MRSA (4).
Accompanying these discoveries, as with all human development, is depiction of these plants and their therapeutic effects through the medium of art. Botanical symbolism is rife within art history, with overt religious imagery in western renaissance paintings to socio-political connotations during the industrial revolution. A major source of for plant symbolism was the medieval herbal. Herbals described the natural properties of plants, the method for their cultivation, and their use in cooking and in medicine. These properties, as well as the plant’s shape, colour, taste, smell, and season of blooming, usually lent themselves to a moral connotation: for example, the poisonous hemlock represented evil and death (5). Of course, with the wealth and variety of existing vegetation, conflicting interpretations and symbolism were assigned to plants across cultures and even generations within the same culture.
In my art I want to recognise the intrinsic relationship we have with nature in medicine. We are part of the natural world, and from the natural world we have manipulated its chemistry to benefit ourselves. Where exactly do we end, and nature begins? Sickness as in health is natural, yet often we consider it not, abnormal, foreign. Perhaps this is a symptom of our Brave New World. The symbolism I assign to plant life depicted in my works also draws attention to the subject matter of the art itself, through cultural or scientific association. Whether that be lilies representing death, or valerian for the treatment of insomnia.
A wonderful example of this is through one of my earliest pieces ‘Prominent uterus with poppies’. The poppies are seeped in symbolism, deliberately in monochrome, the poppies springing from the open uterus and ovaries in full bloom. Red poppies in the west manifest war and trauma, remembering the dead, and are also associated with sleep and rest. Whereas in eastern cultures such as China, red in general is considered lucky and positive, whilst poppies symbolise fertility and wealth. The inverse is true for white poppies, the east assigning these to death and loss (perhaps consistent with the opium trade), the west with peace, innocence and purity. Irrespective of the colour, the flower itself is powerful imagery aligned to the main focus of the artwork; the uterus. The poppies embellish the feminism of the work, highlighting the prominence of female fertility in society, female reproductive means associated with purity and wealth, though also linked with mortality, pain, and often loss.
Green Medicine – The search for plants that heal. Margarent B Kreig, ISBN-10: 0930229002