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Iris in History

Below is a translation of an article by Anna Bahrenburg Barbetti that I 
came across during my trip to Italy. It references some paintings, some 
of which were included with the article some of which I scanned from 
other sources. I thought some of you Iris aficionados would find some of 
it interesting. Tom has put the scans up on his web page. They can be 
found under the heading 

"The Iris-L Cyber Cork Board"

on his garden page at:


The references in the articlee that have scans on Tomıs web page are 
marked with *****ıs. There is a full size picture and a detail of the 
Irises for each artwork. If you click on the thumbnails on Tomıs page 
you will download a full size image. Enjoy - John

by Anna Bahrenburg Barbetti

This study of flowers in painting also aims at being a method of 
cataloging existing and extinct species. Here we will take a look at 
three species of "iris" that can still be found in Tuscany today, and in  
particular the Iris florentina L. that has become the city's symbol.
There are two irises; a white one and a blue one in the Portinar 
Triptych ***** by Ugo van der Goes.(Uffizi, 1480) (detail in lower 
center). The symbology of these flowers can probably be related to the 
grief of the Virgin and the coming Passion. Both of these irises are of 
the species Iris germanica I. The white iris cannot he found in any 
other Florentine painting, perhaps because the color was better rendered 
by the white lily or perhaps because the white Iris florentina L. had 
been commercially replaced by the Iris pallida L. The blue iris, on the 
other hand, can be seen in two other paintings: the Adoration of the 
Shepherds by Ghirlandaio, Sassetti Chapel, Church of Sta. Trinita (1480 
ca.), and the Annunciation***** in the Frescobaldi Chapel, church of 
Santo Spirito, by an unknown XV century artist ) (detail in lower 
center). It is unusual in that the flower generally seen in paintings of 
the Annunciation are white lilies, and yet, here there is an Iris 
germanica blue. This actually should not he a cause for surprise because 
the iris is linked to the symbology of the Virgin Mary in Christian 

There are three other Florentine paintings that may contain examples of 
Iris pallida L. in a pale shade of purple. The Adoration of the Magi by 
Gentile da Fabriano where the iris is painted on the frame along with a 
white lily. Due to its pale purple color, the iris may he associated 
with the month of May, but it may also symbolize, as in the other cases, 
the divine message, while the white lily is the symbol of chastity and 

As second example comes from the manuscript Plut. 15. 17 (c.2v) in the 
Mattia Corvino Bible ***** (1480, ca.) in the Laurentian Library(detail 
in lower right). The miniature shows King David at prayer and the iris 
is in the lower right corner. The symbolism is definitely religious; 
however, the world of symbols is very complex and in all the cases we 
mentioned, the iris is shown with other flowers that can influence its 

The third painting with the Iris pallid L., is Botticelli's Allegory of 
Spring ***** (Uffizi, 1478 ca.) (detail in lower right)where it is below 
the figures of Zephyr, Clori and FloraSpring. Here the color is deep 
blue rather than purple, but we must remember that sometimes the artist 
changed the natural color of the flower to achieve chromatic balance.
The symbolism is related to the month of May since the subject of the 
painting is secular and not religious. The most unusual of all the 
paintings with the Iris in Florence is the Adoration of the Child, which 
was recently restored for the chapel in the Medici Riccardi Palace. In 
this painting there are two irises. One is bordeau and the other blue. 
Scholars have hypothesized that the painting was originally in Palazzo 
Vecchio, in the Priori Chapel, precisely because it contained a red 
iris, the symbol of Florence. Personally, I do not agree with this 
interpretation because if we take a close look at two irises we can see 
that the red one is shaped like an Iris pallida L. and not like an Iris 
Florentina L., the city's symbol which became red because of the blood 
that spilt during the struggles between the factions that vied for 
dominion. The color itself, can suggest religious symbolism, the 
martyrdom of Christ. The blue iris resembles an Iris lutescens L. that 
was definitely indigenous to XV century Tuscany and much more common 
than the Iris germanica L.

Further detailed studies will lead to the discovery of other species 
that existed here in Tuscany the during the fifteenth century, the 
century that launched the most faithful portrayals of nature's 

John                     | "There be dragons here"
                         |  Annotation used by ancient cartographers
                         |  to indicate the edge of the known world.

John Jones, 35572 Linda Dr., Fremont CA, 94536
jijones@ix.netcom.com, USDA zone 8 (coastal, bay)

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