Plants and other natural elements have a long history of symbolic meaning that has become a recent fascination of mine, and the subject of my current collection of paintings. Most recently, I have been studying Renaissance painting and the use of plant and flower symbols. During medieval and renaissance times, most people were illiterate, and messages could be conveyed visually through the depiction of elements in nature and their then commonly understood symbolic meanings. Often these meanings had a long and ancient history; occasionally a meaning would come from the usefulness of the plant. The common, or European, peony, (Paeonia officinalis L.) is one such flower. A native flower of Europe, it was often depicted in Renaissance art and was known as a healing symbol. As far back as the first recorded encyclopedia, Pliny the Elder’s The Natural History, circa AD 77-79, peonies were thought to cure numerous illnesses, and the seeds were given to pregnant women. During the middle ages and the Renaissance, the seed pods, rather than the flowers, were often painted, as the seeds carried the medicinal, and some believed magical, properties. Physicians at that time used the plant to, among other things, ease labour pains. My paintings have been described as portraits of plant and flowers, each one titled after both the name of the flower, and it’s symbolic meaning. In painting these plants I am creating a visual dictionary of forgotten symbols. The peony shown in the image below has been titled: “peony, nascent”, reflecting its long history as a birth and labour image.

Woods-S Image


Wodds-S Image 2Sylvia D. Woods is a visual artist based in Guelph, Ontario. She is a graduate and associate of the Ontario College of Art, fine arts painting and drawing program. She has spent a significant amount of time studying and painting in Europe, and her work can be found in private collections throughout North America and Europe. To contact Sylvia or view more of her work, please visit:

Posted by Christina Turi