If you were born in the month of January, your birth flower is the carnation, one of the oldest known flowers. The Greeks and Romans made ceremonial crowns of carnations. The name dianthus was given to the flower by Greek botanist and philosopher Theophrastus (371-287 BCE). The Greek word dios meant god, and the word anthos meant flower. Thus, carnations were called the “flowers of the gods” and “flowers of love.” As a birth flower it represents devotion, love, and fascination. Carnations were mostly pink and were called “pinks.” The scent of the carnation reminded people of cloves, cinnamon, and nutmeg, and thus it also was known as “clove pink.”
Both the Greek myth about the goddess of the hunt Diana and the Christian story of Mary tell of the creation of the carnation. After a bad day of hunting, Diana came across a shepherd piping to his flock. She blamed his music for frightening away the animals, and in anger she took out his eyes and tossed them on the ground. Regretting her actions, she caused red carnations to appear where the eyes fell as a symbol of his innocence. Mary wept as Christ carried the cross, and red carnations grew where her tears fell. In both stories the red carnation is associated with the shedding of innocent blood, and with love.
“Madonna of the Carnation” (1478-80) (24’’x19’’) was painted by Leonardo da Vinci. The Madonna and Child are placed in a Renaissance interior. Double windows behind them open on the Italian landscape stretching toward the mountains. Mary is richly dressed in a red under gown, blue outer gown, and gold scarf. Her hair is set with white pearls, signifying her virginity. A large pin with a mirror-like surface decorates the bodice of her blue gown. The blue color of the gown and the mountains carries throughout the painting. Touches of yellow in the landscape, Mary’s blond hair, and the gold scarf, carry the yellow gold color through the composition.
The two figures create a triangular composition, introduced by da Vinci. The red of her sleeve echoes the curved position of the Child on her lap. The unique bunching of the gold scarf at the bottom, and the folds in Jesus’s flesh, because of the bent positions of his arms and legs, create an interesting match.
The principal figure in the painting is Jesus. Leonardo da Vinci was the only artist who depicted Jesus as a pudgy new born baby. Mary holds a red carnation, the most important symbol in the painting. Jesus is fascinated by it. His eyes are the slightly focused eyes of a new born. He most certainly will grab the carnation and put in his mouth. Catholic belief was that Jesus and Mary both knew His destiny from the moment of His birth. Accordingly, in reaching out for the red carnation, Jesus reaches out to fulfill His destiny. Mary’s face is impassive.
Raphael’s “Aldobrandini Madonna” (1510) (15”x13’’) depicts the same subject, but adds John the Baptist. The triangular composition, then popular, depicts the solemn trio, all wearing halos. Jesus grasps the red carnation, and John the Baptist, carrying a reed cross, reaches up to Jesus. Both accept their roles, and both will die.
In “Still-life with Carnations” (1886) van Gogh paints some of the many colors of carnations. Red carnations, beyond their religious symbolism, mean deep love. Pink carnations, often given on Mother’s Day, represent gratitude and love. White carnations represent purity, innocence, and good luck. The striped carnation is one of the new varieties, and the two multicolored carnations are van Gogh’s idea. French florists carried carnations in the 1800s. The American Carnation Society was formed in 1891.
“Still-life with Carnations” is one of van Gogh’s early works. In Paris for the first time from 1886 until1888, he was leaving behind the dark colors of his Dutch work and searching for the colors he saw in Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings. In a letter to their mother (1886), Theo wrote that Vincent was “mainly painting flowers, with the aim of making future pictures brighter in color.” Theo also noted that Vincent’s friends gave him fresh flowers every week to help him with his work. In the still-life, van Gogh has painted the enlarged base of the green flower buds and the swollen sections where leaves are attached to the stems. He was beginning to use thick paint applied loosely. One of van Gogh’s favorite colors, cobalt blue, is used in the glass vase and dashed onto the background and foreground.
If you were born between January 20 and February 18, your Native American totem animal is the otter. Otters are described as playful, kind, family oriented, creative, sociable, curious, and sometimes mischievous. An early example of the otter in art comes from the Late Kingdom in Egypt. The “Egyptian Otter” (664-30 BCE) is a small bronze sculpture of an otter, standing upright on its hind legs, paws raised, and described as worshipping the sun god while it rises in the morning. Wadjet, a goddess of Lower Egypt, appears in in front of a sun disc as a cobra on the otter’s head. The cobra appears on the crown of the Pharoah as a sign of absolute power, which is derived from the sun.
Otters were a part of many ancient cultures in China, Japan, India, North American. The Christian St Cuthbert (634-687 CE), a monk of Northumbria, was the patron saint of otters. It is said he prayed nightly, standing in the North Sea, while two otters warmed his feet. Otters were a source of food and fur pelts. They also were favored as pets because of their cute faces. The word otter came from Old English and Indo-European words for water.
“Sea Otter, Young Male” (1848) (22”x28”) (lithograph and watercolor) is a print by John Woodhouse Audubon (1812-1862), the second son of John James Audubon. His talent was recognized and encouraged by his father. Father and son took many trips together to study and paint animals, and when the senior Audubon was failing, his son continued painting, printing, and running the company. On their last expedition together in 1843 on the Missouri River, they depicted and documented the four-legged mammals of North American, including the otter.
John Woodhouse Audubon has captured the otter’s streamlined head and body, short legs, and sleek dark brown coat. The otter’s long tale helps propel him through the water. His large webbed feet have sharp claws that help catch fish, but they also are used to pick up sharp rocks and to crack open hard shells. Otters also have a very good sense of smell and hearing, and their whiskers help them sense prey in the water. They can stay underwater for up to eight minutes. Recent studies have discovered otters to be one of the most intelligent of the sea mammals.
The “Sea Otter” (19th to 20th Century) (bone) is a common North American animal fetish carving found in many of the Alaskan Tlingit, Haida, and American Indian cultures. Beyond their value as food and fur, they were observed to be happy and adorable. Otter carvings were children’s toys. This small amulet was worn on a cord around the neck. Otters were thought to bring good luck, and their spirit encouraged the wearer to enjoy the simple pleasures in life. If worn by an otter hunter, the amulet would help to draw the otters close for the hunt.
The position of the otter was a significant part of what was thought to be their personality. Otters sleep on their backs in the water. Otters do not have a layer of blubber for warmth. Their thick water-resistant coats, which they spend much of the day grooming, trapping air and heat next to the skin. When they sleep, otters huddle together in pairs or groups and hold “hands” to keep them from floating away in the night. In other words, they love to cuddle. Holding hands for humans is a sign of affection and caring, also one of the important aspects of the otter totem.
How lovable are otters? “Adeline and Millie” (2022) (bronze) are part of the Otter-ly Amazing Downtown Project in the Riverfront Park on the Rappahannock River in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Steven and Stewart Wegner, owners of Wegner Metal Arts, created seven bronze otter sculptures for the new park. Their foundry, opened in 1979, casts thousands of works of art. “Adeline and Millie” and the other sculptures are placed in the four-acre Park, and they are part of an interactive program to introduce everyone to the features of the park. They are the objects of a scavenger hunt, that draws visitors to the features of the park. The Fredericksburg’s Otter-ly Amazing Scavenger Hunt brochure explains, “These furry river dwellers are a crucial indicator of an aquatic ecosystem’s health. Their presence is a sign of good water quality. Thanks to the cleanup efforts from local environmental organizations like Friends of the Rappahannock, otters have started returning to our river! The otter now proudly serves as a symbol of the health and vitality of our city.” (fxbg.com)
Beverly Hall Smith was a professor of art history for 40 years. Since retiring with her husband Kurt to Chestertown in 2014, she has taught art history classes at WC-ALL. She is also an artist whose work is sometimes in exhibitions at Chestertown RiverArts and she paints sets for the Garfield Center for the Arts.