Looking for Love

Does anything preoccupy us more than love? From creation myths to the most enduring art, love is almost always a central theme, and at the very least a tangential one. Throughout history, a full roster of things have come to symbolize love, romantic or otherwise, in various cultural, religious, and artistic ways. So on the eve of love's annual organized celebration, Valentine's Day, we've picked out all the ways love is represented in our Presidents' Weekend Auction - it turns out if you look from the right perspective, love is easy to find.

Roses
In pretty much any culture red roses are a symbol of passionate love. Pink roses symbolize warm affection, and yellow roses signal either friendship or jealousy. In the Victorian language of flowers (Victorians had all manner of symbolic "languages" to address the subject of romance, which of course they shied away from looking at head on), even the number of roses given to a love interest had meaning. One rose symbolized love at first sight, two symbolized shared love, and so on until a dozen roses, which meant that the recipient was perfect in every way. Ancient Greeks closely associated roses with Aphrodite, and early Christians tied them to the Virgin Mary, and eventually the rosary.
roses-still-lifeA Vintage Hungarian School Still Life Painting with Roses

Putti/Cherubs
Though "putti" are not technically the same as cherubs, which are not technically the same as Cupid, all are portrayed as plump, naked, winged babies, and all are symbols of love of one kind or another, whether it be the love between human and god or non-religious, secular love between humans. Cupid (to the Romans), of course, is one and the same as Eros (to the Greeks), son of Venus (Aphrodite to the Greeks), and is the god of love. The youth of putti/cherubs/Cupid is thought to be symbolic of love's playful mischief.
cupidsItalian Composition Plaque After Bertaux

Swans
Humans, possibly because of our own susceptibility to unfaithfulness, tend to romanticize species that mate for life. Swans, with their graceful, pure white presence and their lifelong partnerships, have become an obvious symbol of purity and fidelity. It's ironic, then, that in Greek myth it was in the form of a swan that the famously promiscuous Zeus finally managed to seduce Leda - one of their children would be Helen of Troy, and we all know how that ended.
swansMottahedeh Swan Form Jardiniere

Apples
While Eve's intentions when giving THE apple to Adam may be a matter of debate, the apple has had clear romantic connotations in many places outside the Bible. In Chinese tradition apple blossoms symbolize adoration. In ancient Greek myth, gods and royals were constantly tempting each other with golden apples, setting off all manner of events from marriages to wars. And as part of an autumn Cornish celebration, young men and women put apples under their pillows to evoke dreams of their future spouse.
fullsizeoutput_88A Vintage Continental School Still Life Painting

Seashells
Ever since Venus was theoretically borne to shore on a scallop shell, the shell has been a symbol of love. Some say that the hard, protective nature of a shell lends it to signifying the protectiveness of love, though that imagery contradicts how often love itself is portrayed as being fragile and precious.
shellAesthetic Movement Carved Oak Rocking Chair

Lilies
Once again, Zeus's extracurricular activities spawned lasting iconography. This time, according to the myth, Zeus wanted his son Hercules, born to a woman other than his wife, Hera, to nevertheless be fed by Hera. Hera, understandably, wasn't up for it. So Zeus tried to feed Hercules from Hera while she slept. When she woke and pushed the baby Hercules away, the milk that spilled onto the ground grew into lilies.

Why this makes lilies a symbol of romance is a mystery. Nevertheless, they have come to symbolize pure, innocent love, as opposed to the passionate love of red roses. Their connection to fertility from the Greek myth is perhaps more obvious. The Chinese also use lilies in wedding ceremonies because they associate them with 100 years of faithful love.
lily-bustAn Antique Carved Mable Bust of a Young Beauty

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Content created by the Leland Little editorial team