You have, no doubt, seen a peculiar floral symbol in all manner of places with no apparent explanation or context. It graces the high and the low alike, from the heraldic crests of Europe’s ancient families and Old-World castles of immense wealth and opulence to the humble kitchen wallpaper. I’m speaking about the fleur-de-lis, otherwise known as the flower-de-luce or Blue Iris.
According to one myth this mysterious flower’s name has origins deep in the wells of European history, at the intersection of politics and religion. The young crusader Louis VII adopted it as the emblem of his house and as the sign of the royal authority in France, so the story goes, and the “fleur-de-Louis” eventually came to be the fleur-de-lis we now know today.
While there is some confusion as to the exact flower the fleur-de-lis is supposed to represent, many conjecture that rather than the lily the fleur-de-lis is actually the white iris (Iris florentina) or yellow iris (Iris pseudacorus), both of which grow in Europe.
Some say the fleur-de-lis was based on Iris florentina
Image sourced by author
The name Iris is an old one, denoting the goddess of the rainbow (the name also means “messenger” in Greek). The connection between the rainbow and divinity has weight in Hebraic culture as well, for the rainbow set atop the sky in Genesis is God’s promise to honor his covenant with Noah to never again destroy humanity.
But what concerns us here is not the flower itself or its varied decorative uses, the number of which are legion. Rather, what is of most interest in the long and storied relationship between the fleur-de-lis and the visual arts is their meeting point at that fertile nexus of architecture known as the nineteenth-century Gothic Revival. Only here does the use of the fleur-de-lis transcend the merely ornamental and reach toward the political, moral, and spiritual.
Although the eminent nineteenth-century British aesthetician John Ruskin (1819-1900) described the use of the flower in architectural design as having “nothing to do with France,” being merely the “the carrying out of the Byzantine system of floral ornamentation, which introduced the outline of the lily everywhere,” he still conceived of the flower itself as a kind of floral shorthand for the highest ideal of the Middle Ages of Europe. According to Ruskin, “[t]he fleur-de-lis, which is the flower of chivalry, has a sword for its leaf and a lily for its heart.”
Whence comes this noble association between flower and knighthood, or more properly speaking, the representation of the flower and a nostalgic yearning for the heroic past?
The British philosopher and statesman Edmund Burke (1729-97), writing a century earlier than Ruskin, famously opined in 1790—as the French Revolution was well underway—that “the age of chivalry is gone”:
“That of sophisters, economists, and calculators has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished forever. Never, never more, shall we behold that generous loyalty to rank and sex, that proud submission, that dignified obedience, that subordination of the heart, which kept alive, even in servitude itself, the spirit of an exalted freedom! The unbought grace of life, the cheap defence of nations, the nurse of manly sentiment and heroic enterprise, is gone! It is gone, that sensibility of principle, that chastity of honor, which felt a stain like a wound, which inspired courage whilst it mitigated ferocity, which ennobled whatever it touched, and under which vice itself lost half its evil by losing all its grossness!”
For Burke and the rather Romantically-minded Victorians of the next century (Ruskin included), chivalry was the culmination—one might say the flower—of the newly dethroned ancien régime. The fact that this system of values was propagated in and encouraged by Europe’s medieval forebearers was justification enough for the whole system of medieval culture and society, serfs, ladies, lords, and all, despite the numerous injustices alleged by the nascent revolutionaries. The Gothic Revival, a style of architecture and interior design influenced by earlier Gothic styles, was one expression of this nostalgia for the values of medieval chivalry.
Louis VII who ruled France from 1137 to 1180, as depicted by Henri Decaisne in 1837
Image Source: Images D’Art
Gothic Revival architects and artists embraced the fleur-de-lis precisely because it represented chivalry and the world lost forever with the advent of the French Revolution, that calamitous event which ushered in all the aesthetic ugliness and moral shallowness of nineteenth-century industrialism, the likes of which were not escaped even in the United Kingdom.
Ruskin, one of the foremost theorizers of the Gothic Revival—as illustrated by his comments in tomes such as The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849) and The Stones of Venice (1853)—stridently agitated for the values of the Middle Ages to be reflected in modern architecture. The fleur-de-lis, of course, was one of the most obvious means of injecting chivalric ideals into the aesthetic language of Victorian Britain, which Ruskin believed was dominated by a mass-produced, mechanical decorative arts that allowed for nary an echo of the creativity afforded to medieval craftsmen.
“The fleur-de-lis, which is the flower of chivalry, has a sword for its leaf and a lily for its heart.”
–John Ruskin (1819-1900)
Architectural genius August Welby Pugin (1812-1852), designer of the Westminster Parliament building, was of sympathetic mind to Ruskin, and likewise argued that the Gothic taste was a morally superior choice compared to the modern industrial style which, unlike the Gothic, is informed by a secular culture where art, religion, and society are clearly separated from one another.
Not so in the Gothic Revival style developed by Pugin. A perfect example of this aspiration forfusing the artistic and the spiritual can be found in the Roman Catholic church of St. Giles, built between 1841 and 1845 in the small English town of Cheadle. St. Gile’s is replete with patterned wall stenciling, tiles, metalwork, and stained glass prominently featuring the fleur-de-lis. Oftentimes Pugin adopts a fractal approach to the church’s design, permuting his fleur-de-lis patterns and recombining them with other patterns of different symbols, giving a nearly kaleidoscopic effect to the church’s interior. In other cases Pugin grafts the fleur-de-lis onto stained-glass images of the globus cruciger, making the flower stand in for the cross itself. So frequently is the fleur-de-lis compounded with other symbols, one might say that for Pugin the fleur-de-lis nearly takes on the importance of the crucifix (a fitting concatenation, given the integral connection between Christianity and medieval chivalry).
St. Giles Cathedral built by architect and designer A.W.N. Pugin
Image Source: Patrick Comerford
A peek inside St. Giles shows Pugin’s penchant for intricate designs
Image Source: Vitruvian Guy
Candlestick holder attached to red metal fleur-de-lis clasps on wall inside St. Giles
Image Source: Vitruvian Guy
But Pugin also brought his Romanticized conception of the medieval—and the fleur-de-lis—to non-architectural works as well. Pugin’s humbler but no-less-stunning designs for furniture, ceramics, and metalwork frequently made use of this medieval symbol. For instance, several variations of Pugin’s altar candlesticks, circa 1848, demonstrate fleur-de-lis cresting on their drip-pans, and his dish of parcel-gilt silver and enamel (1847-48) likewise sports an engraved recurring fleur-de-lis motif. In conclusion, Pugin’s elaborate tracery and stylized foliate motifs became the hallmark of the Gothic Revival style.
While the chivalric fleur-de-lis has never been as popular as it was during the nineteenth-century mania for all things medieval, its history does boast at least one sweet irony. After Napoleon had usurped the place of privilege previously occupied by the royal house of Bourbon, he set out to find his own imperial emblem. As an enemy of the Bourbons, he could not make use of the fleur-de-lis, so he eventually settled on golden bees as the new imperial symbol. But as anyone will attest, bees are as fond of the iris as they are of any other flower, from which they derive the nectar necessary to produce their honey. Just as the ancien régime of the Bourbons gave way to the derivative regime of the Napoleons, so did the longstanding fleur-de-lis give way to the ultimately dependent bee.
But whereas the Napoleonic bee was lost in the tumult of history, the fleur-de-lis enjoyed a later rebirth in the Gothic Revival, and it has never gone out of fashion—even as a purely decorative addition.