We have already published an article explaining that the icon is anthropocentric (Why an Icon Is Not a Portrait of a Saint), but at the same time it also depicts the plants that surround man in his earthly life. Except for the fact that it is not a classic, self-centered landscape, as we know it from the works of artists, but the representation of the ideal, transfigured world, or the world before the Fall; it is a set of symbols. A plant or a tree on early icons is not a particular tree, it is often even difficult to tell what it is: some kind of an imprint that looks more like a hieroglyph, a dried up leaf in a book. It shows that it is a symbol rather than something specific in front of the viewer.
When God created man, He did not place him in chaos or in the desert; He placed man in the Garden of Eden. Plants and animals were created earlier than humans. The Lord Himself acts as the Gardener who planted this beautiful garden and placed man in it. In the aftermath of the Fall, the man who was expelled from the Garden of Eden can finally regain hope thanks to the Garden of Gethsemane, where the Lord prayed, and then to the garden in which there was the cave that became the Savior’s tomb site. Mary Magdalene did not find Jesus’ body in the cave, so she turns to Him who was resurrected and thinks that He is a gardener. That is why the plants depicted on the frescoes and icons first of all symbolize paradise: the Good Thief is depicted on the icons among small trees, reminiscent of myrtle – they are sometimes painted with white flowers and splashes of red berries, on a white background, which also carries the symbolism of paradise.
Many plant symbols on icons are borrowed from the gospel.
The vine became the symbol of Christ Himself, who spoke directly of it: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the husbandman.” (John 15:1) There is even an iconographic image, directly reflecting these words: “I am the true vine.”
The theme of grapes, vine and vineyard permeates the whole Gospel, so the image of grapes, vine leaves and fruits are very often found not only in iconography, but also in book miniatures, gold embroidery, frescoes, mosaics.
Another famous and favorite biblical image from the plant world is white lily. It has become a symbol of purity and chastity, perhaps due largely to Western artists depicting the Archangel Gabriel with a white lily in his hands in the scene of the Annunciation.
Lilies of the field are a symbol of the Lord’s care and guidance: the Lord Himself points to them, speaking of God’s Providence that works in the life of every man: “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin” (Matthew 6:28). Flower images in iconography are often painted on the icons of the Blessed Virgin Mary, who is called “The Eternal Flower”, “The Blessed Flower”. A wreath of flowers adorns the picturesque image of the Zhirovichi icon of the Mother of God (the icon itself is made of stone).
The Unburnt Bush symbolizes the Virgin Mary, who remained immaculate both after the incarnation, and after the birth of the Son of God. However, the plant itself can only be seen on the early icons; later images represent a biblical event in the form of a complex allegorical legend. The image of the Mother of God with the Child is enclosed in an eight-pointed star formed by green (the color of leaves) and red (the color of fire).
There are other images from the plant world which are directly borrowed from the Gospel. For example, the fig tree, which is mentioned several times in the Gospel: both as a symbol of fruitlessness and as the tree on which Zacchaeus climbed to see the Lord.
Another example is weeds and tares, which were the tangible expression of the Fall, affecting the entire creation. “Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee” Adam hears from God (Genesis 3:18).
However, on some icons plants are just details of the surrounding landscape, indicating to us the place of the saint’s origin, or the place of his exploit, like the desert on the icon of St. Mary of Egypt and the oak on the icon of St. Tikhon of Kaluga: it is known from the biography of St. Tikhon that he spent seventeen years in the hollow of an oak tree.
And even so, the image was rather symbolic. Nevertheless, we have to admit that over time the iconographic landscape became more and more naturalistic, which was caused by the secularization of mentality and the general decline of church art.
There are no superfluous details on icons. They tell us not only about Christ, the Mother of God, and the saints, but also about the whole surrounding world as a huge icon, the implementation of the creative intent of the Eternal Icon Painter. When placed in the composition and space of the icon, the images of plants acquire spiritual and symbolic meaning.