The white lily has got to be up there as one of the most popular plants to be rendered in Western art. Over many centuries the main provider of these floral depictions has been paintings of The Annunciation; the Christian and Catholic celebration of archangel Gabriel’s announcement to the Virgin Mary that she would be the mother of Jesus. The majority of these artworks contain white lilies in the frame, somewhere. Lilies, it is believed, represent innocence and purity thus making virgin Mary a worthy recipient. As for the species, white lilies with a single flowerhead and leaves circling up the entire length of the stem in European art are most likely Lilium candidum, hence its common names, Annunciation Lily and Madonna Lily. This plant is native to the Eastern Mediterranean and should not be confused with the Easter lily or Lilium longiforum, a native of Southern Japan that has been extensively cultivated in the US due to its status as the traditional flower of Easter. The Easter lily is also a symbol of the Virgin Mary as well as the resurrection, and further meanings such as life, goodness and hope are attached to it. A third white lily, often employed in Christian art in reference to Eve and the Virgin Mary, is the Calla lily, not a true lily at all, but a member of the Arum family Araceae. It has been suggested this is a case of botanical inaccuracy, confusing one plant with a completely different one based on a few similar morphological traits i.e. both white and beautiful. Long before the Christians used lilies, the pagans celebrated them too, extending back further their long history of symbolism and use. Modern artworks, like Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy by David Hockney (above), show that neither their popularity nor symbolism has waned.
There are many things to observe in this great painting, some more hidden than others. Apparently produced as a wedding gift for Mr and Mrs Clark themselves, it luckily for us ended up in the hands of the Tate. The scene is evocative of other famous portraits of married couples but with a few twists. Unlike Van Eyck’s The Arnolfini Marriage, 1434 for example, Mrs Clark is standing on the left, reversing the traditional married couple pose – giving more power and status to the woman. Also, both subjects look out towards the viewer, as opposed to one looking at the other, perhaps referencing the inter-relationships of the couple and Hockney. The painting suggests Hockney held Mrs Clark in high regard, shown through her sympathetic representation. Where light from the window illuminates her, highlighting her clear, friendly and open gaze; in direct contrast to Mr (Ossie) Clark’s seemingly grumpy countenance. Some of the painting is flat and painterly, yet the couple themselves are more realistic, a contrast that only adds to the intrigue. Then there is the best bit, the vase of white lilies in the room, offering up an additional piece of information that without them would not be known – Mrs Clark is pregnant. AND, if employing a traditional Christian interpretation, perhaps we can deduct that there is something not altogether commonplace about the circumstance of conception.
A lily is white and very beautiful; exceeding all other flowers for whiteness. Within it are seven grains or seeds that are the color of gold. White is a picture of purity (Revelation 3:4).
Click image for full size painting: