Thursday, 27 February 2014

Iris, the Greek Goddess of the Rainbow

Van Gogh's 'Irises'

An alternative February Birth Month Flower is the Iris.

Whoever decided on these Birth Month Flowers must live in a part of the world where spring comes much earlier than here in the UK. The irises in my garden are usually in flower in late May!

I’ve never been very much attracted to irises. I do like the plain blue-purple ones but, like violets, irises often has that smudge of yellow that, to me, makes them look ‘dirty’. As well as that, I tend to prefer flowers that grow on curved branches or at least on stems that will sway and bend. Typically, irises stand a little too straight for my liking, though a clump of the light blue ones at the back of a border can look lovely.

And strangely, I think the iris is a flower that seems to grow more appealing when portrayed in watercolour, rather than as a photo. I became much more enthusiastic about this flower in the course of collecting paintings of them for my Iris Pinterest board

Hereford artist, Ruth S Harris's Irises,
print available from Society6

The paintbrush seems to lend them a softness that doesn’t come across so well in a photograph. Van Gogh’s irises are certainly not standing up to attention and Monet's are decidedly floppy and curvaceous!

Monet's Yellow Irises

A few things you may like to know about Irises:

  • Irises grow all over the world and they come in too many varieties and colours to list them all here.
  • The Iris is the state flower of Tennessee as well as the National Flower of Croatia
  • And in Japan, where they grow easily in the wild, people have traditionally used Iris designs on their kimonos, to protect themselves from evil energies.
  • Traditionally, the iris represents faith, hope, wisdom and courage and they are represented in very early art, such as Ancient Egyptian and in Greek mythology.
  • Iris is the name of the Greek Goddess of the Rainbow, who was also the messenger of the Gods. Purple irises were planted  on the graves of women to summon the goddess to guide the dead on their journey over the rainbow bridge. (I don’t know who guided the men!)


When I started to think about this blog post, I began to wonder whether there was any connection between the Iris flower and the part of the eye that controls the amount of light that reaches the retina - the ‘iris’. It seemed quite unlikely.

But wikipaedia, as usual, enlightened me - 

It is in the iris that we see the different eye-colours, blue, grey, hazel, brown and green – a ‘rainbow’ of colours! (Not quite a rainbow as we generally think of it but certainly quite a wide variety of colours.)

I’ve only ever seen blue, purple, yellow and white Irises but I like the pink and tangerine ones I’ve seen in paintings. 

It seems that William Morris did too:
William Morris's Iris pattern for wallpaper and home textiles

It’s too late for this February but maybe, next year, I should put my prejudices aside, like I did with the violets, and really get to know some irises through drawing and painting them?


Boriana Giormova said...

Great article Judy, I enjoyed reading it!

Judy Adamson said...

Thank you, Boriana :)

jean pell said...

Judy, I grow 3 different Irises. The common lavender, yellow, and a stately Bearded variety that is Burgundy. They are already coming up.:)

Learned some new facts about this lovely spring flower from this post.

I don't do them justice but watercolors make them shine.

Judy Adamson said...

Thank you for your comments, Jean - mine are beginning to push up through the soil too. I hope you'll post some photos of yours when they are in bloom - I'd love to see them. :)