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Floral Design: Definition & History

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Art is more than painting and sculpture. In this lesson, we are going to explore the rich history of floral design in Western societies, and see how plants have shaped our interior spaces for millennia.

History of Floral Design

It's customary in the modern world to begin courtship with the presentation of flowers. Of course, flowers are also pretty useful if you majorly mess up and you need to apologize. And they're good for mother's day, weddings, and funerals, as well as proms and homecomings. We really use a lot of flowers. Why do we do that?

This story of floral design, or the decorative use of plants, has an ancient history. In Western societies, we can actually trace this practice all the way back to the ancient Egyptians. Of course, that immediately poses an interesting question: how do we know what kinds of flowers Egyptians liked? Floral design has been such a part of our history that the design patterns were preserved in murals of Egypt, mosaics of Rome, frescoes of the Renaissance, and written descriptions across time. We like our flowers in Western society. After all, it's an artistic tradition we've been developing for millennia.

Ancient Egypt

Our history of floral design starts all the way back in ancient Egypt. Egyptians saw natural abundance and prosperity as semi-divine, a symbol that the gods and pharaohs were pleased and that the rituals of Egyptian life were working to keep cosmic chaos at bay. So, murals in tombs and palaces of ancient Egypt often showed scenes of feasts and celebrations. In these, we see elaborate floral arrangements that seem to have been used both for decoration and as offerings to the gods in the temples.

The diversity of flowers in these arrangements demonstrates the abundance of life on the Nile. Roses, water lilies, jasmine, poppies, and other plants adorn these scenes. Most important, perhaps, was the lotus blossom, a symbol of creation and life in Egyptian culture. To present these beautiful plants, Egyptians preferred simple and direct presentations, focused on clarity and repetition of patterns. Early wreaths and garlands also made their appearance at this time.

Ancient Greece

The Greeks took the Egyptian fascination with floral design and incorporated it into their impressive architectural culture. The designs in Greece were mostly aesthetic, with less use of flowers as offerings or divine symbols than in Egypt. The Greeks also added several local flora to their designs, notable grape leaves and Mediterranean herbs.

In terms of presentation, the Greeks liked to arrange their flowers in triangular and symmetrical patterns. If you've ever seen the front of a Greek temple, you may have an idea where this motif came from. Favoring simplicity as well, the Greeks often arranged flowers of a single or few colors. White was popular, as a symbol of purity. The Greeks also developed a new style of presentation known as the cornucopia, a cup or horn with flowers pouring out of the end.

Ancient Rome

The Romans were the next to build upon this artistic tradition. While they maintained the use of cornucopias and Greek arrangements, the Romans also became obsessed with garlands, wreaths, and floral crowns. You may have famously seen a Roman emperor depicted with a crown of laurel leaves, for example. Many Roman sarcophagi were also carved with stone garlands, imitating the floral arrangements popular in Roman banquets and homes.

Roman sarcophagus with garlands
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Medieval Designs

The expansion of the Roman Empire introduced Roman ideas (and flower arrangements) across the Mediterranean. After the fall of Rome, these traditions blossomed into new styles. In Constantinople, center of the Byzantine Empire, fruit was often incorporated into garlands and arrangements. The Byzantines also developed a twisting, curved design for their garlands and stacked flowers in baskets in tall, tree-shaped arrangements.

Many of Rome's flowers came from Mediterranean colonies in North Africa and West Asia, and the fall of Roman trade routes impacted the ability of Northern and Western Europeans to access foreign flowers. Flower arrangements do seem to have been used by the Church and were prominent in many European cathedrals, but such arrangements may also have been out of place in the solid, thick and dimly lit stone castles of the era.

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