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Symbolism of the Lotus Flower

The Lotus is native to southern China where it grows in a warm, temperate region with many flowing rivers and scenic lakes. Grown from a tuberous pale, cream-colored root, the water plant is lushly verdant, dense, and massy. Its large, broad, green leaves and light-colored blossoms rise above the waterline from slender stalks. The flower blossoms amidst dark leaves appearing bright and fresh. According to Buddhism, the lotus is the symbol of purity and the seat of enlightenment where gods and saints meditate throughout eternity. Its blossom, the vessel of wisdom and salvation, holds the Jewels of Truth.

In greater China, the lotus first appeared as a painted image in Buddhist cave-shrines of the far western deserts. A vast Buddhist paradise was painted on the galls of the shrines in a rich palette of mineral sky-blues and floral greens. The gods and deities were shown adorned with diadems, necklaces, and bracelets – all glistening with precious gems and gold. The Lotus Sutra told of the unearthly worlds of illusion that were a given a material guise and rendered without restraint to hint at the heavenly paradise awaiting the faithful.  Such sacred scenes provided the models for the celebrated blue and green style of court painting and its legendary secular landscapes during the Tang dynasty.

In the Song dynasty, mineral pigments were used by artists of the palace academies and the popular decorative schools and exemplified in the floral themes of the Piling studios of the south. The lotus was the common emblem of romantic love and progeny. Diptych scrolls of lotuses were given to the newlyweds with mated waterfowls representing wishes for a tranquil and blessed marriage, the full buds and blossoms pregnant with seed pods promising many children to the loving couple. As a Buddhist and Taoist commentary on enduring perfection triumphant over temporal decay, weathered leaves were often contrasted with the pristine flower.  The aged leaves were battered, torn and ravaged by the winds, while the blossom, complete and whole, sweeps upward from a straight stem, perfect and untouched by time or corruption.

The literati admired the lotus for embodying Confucian virtues:

Among flowering plants in water or earth, there are many that are admired… But I especially love the lotus for its rises from the muck unstrained, bathed in clear rippling water, yet not only wickedly seductive. The center of its stem is unobstructed and clear; outside, it is straight, not tendrilled nor branched. At a distance, its fragrance becomes all the purer. In elegantly erect and uniformed plantings, the blossoms are not for intimate dalliance, but for enjoyment from afar…

The Taoists believed that the lotus possessed wonderous herbal properties and endowed the gift of immortality. The lotus was also thought to unite body and soul.

[The lotus] refresh(s) the skin and muscles; it keeps the mind calm and pleasant. Its seeds are used to enrich vital energies. Obviously it is a food of the immortals…some [of whom] do not require any food at all… These effects are due to their eating lotus seed and root that have been preserved for a thousand years…

In the twentieth century, the image of the lotus took a radical departure from depictions of the past. In Japan, Nihonga artists often observed nature with a scientific eye, dwelling on the minute details of the visual world. The trompe l’oeil image of the leaf’s velvety surface repelling dew simultaneously explores the physical properties of the botanical specimen as well as the artist’s technical skills, achieving great decorative effect.

In China, the decorative quality of the lotus was combined with the panache of the literati tradition, an expressive blend of untrammeled ink-play with the ancient blue and green style. The modern master Zhang Daichien described his feelings in 1975 while painting Crimson Lotuses:

“I spilled the ink out all at once

And couldn’t stop myself.

So let them laugh at this old man

if I let loose in my old age.”

Written: in my seventy-seventh year. 

Zhang Daichien set the mold for painting the lotus among contemporary Chinese artists, from the remarkably trite to the expressive and imaginative painters, including Chen Wenguang.

Links within the Bruvel Fine Arts website for your further exploration:

* Who is Chen Wenguang and What is his History with Nihonga?

* Master Matazo Kayama on his student Chen Wenguang 

* What is Nihonga Art and Its History?

* The Influence of the Lotus Flower in Chen Wenguang’s Painting