The American essayist John Burroughs observed, “I go to Nature to be soothed and healed, and have my senses put in order.” This summer, I particularly appreciated opportunities to escape from Washington to the nearby countryside for such healing moments—to see fields of sunflowers turning to the light, acres of corn waving in the breeze, deer grazing or foxes patrolling, and slow-moving turtles that can use a hand to safely cross the road.
My interest in nature encourages my study of botanical art; it pulls me to Pietro Perugino’s The Crucifixion with the Virgin, Saint John, Saint Jerome, and Saint Mary Magdalene, which was painted at a time when Renaissance artists were experimenting with a fresh way of seeing and depicting the natural world. Rediscovered manuscripts from Greco-Roman antiquity were stimulating interest in nature and keenly read and prized in Florence, where Perugino worked at times. Plants became valued for their beauty and form as well as their medicinal properties. Artists such as Leonardo da Vinci and others studied human anatomy, plants, and animals to represent them with scientific accuracy. Beautiful meadows of flowers became popular in Florentine painting, where detailed depictions could merge with symbolic allusions to form a new language.
Perugino applied this new symbolic language in his unusually quiet and meditative portrayal of the Crucifixion theme. It is not the more typical scene of a mother’s anguish at the violent death of her son or his followers’ despair, as can be seen in examples painted by Matthias Grünewald and Luca Signorelli. With Perugino, our eye is drawn to the lush, tranquil landscape and the array of plants beneath the cross and at the feet of the saints. These purposely placed plants convey meaning and message.
Each plant has a symbolic role that resonates with the theme of the Crucifixion. At the right foot of the Virgin Mary is a red poppy, its sleep-inducing properties emblematic of death, and its red color a reminder of Jesus’s blood. Tiny violets invoke humility, and the yellow dandelions are one of the bitter herbs consumed at the Last Supper shared by Jesus and his disciples. Wild strawberries grow below the cross and symbolize the Incarnation—the white flower is linked to Mary’s purity, and it bears a heart-shaped fruit whose color again recalls the blood of Jesus.
Saints are frequently depicted with attributes that help viewers recognize them. Saint Jerome, seen in the left panel, is often accompanied by a lion—a story recounts that after he extracted a thorn from the animal’s paw, the lion remained with the saint until his death. The tall pink mallow at Jerome’s feet has healing properties and may suggest salvation.
Mary Magdalene occupies the right panel and is identifiable by her jar of ointment, with which she anointed the feet of Jesus, on a nearby rock. The bulrush in the pool of water at her feet recalls the story of Moses and how he was rescued from the reeds along the Nile as an infant, reinforcing the theme of salvation. Nearby, the sharp leaves of the purple iris echo the piercing of the heart of these solemn witnesses, and the drooping lilac-colored columbines near the rock suggest sorrow.
This unusual triptych (a work with three parts) was made for personal prayer. The serene faces are devoid of any fear or anxiety. The plants were likely intended to enhance this mood and serve as an aid to meditation for the patron of the work—a learned prominent bishop who would have understood their symbolism, or perhaps even requested it. But this painted escape into nature may offer solace for any who look for it, apart from religious meaning. It is the peacefulness of the entire landscape that first entices us, suggesting the merits of a pastoral life, completely removed from the main subject. The beauty of the clear blue sky, quiet water, gentle rock outcroppings, and Perugino’s signature feathery trees can provide comfort and reverie. Then, musing on red poppies can take us back to a field recalled from happier days; a stand of purple iris can recollect a grandmother’s garden. The sweetness of fresh strawberries and yellow dandelions can remind us of summer childhood play.
When I consider this painting, the words of Rachel Carson come to mind: “There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature—the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.” The peaceful composition suggests that Perugino recognized this power of nature, like art, to soothe the soul and calm a troubled spirit during times of uncertainty.