At the heart of symbolism

As the seasons and cycles go by

The four seasons

Hours and seasons

The regularity of the seasonal cycles has not only influenced husbandries, but also the artistic representation of nature in the West as well as in the East.

  • In ancient Greece, the seasons were often represented by deities: spring was devoted to Hermes, the messenger of the gods; summer to Apollo, the sun-god; autumn to Dionysos, the god of wine; winter to Hephaistos, the god of the arts of fire and metals. In the Middle Ages, months were associated with the agricultural work as in the stained-glass window of the Zodiac in Chartres' cathedral.
  • In the East, particularly in China and Japan, the evocation of the seasons did not refer at all to mythology or agricultural work. Their representation was restricted to an elite living away from the rural world. Steeped in tradition, philosophy and poetry, it advocated an idealized nature intending to raise the being's spirit. To reach this goal, painters and poets used the same type of materials and brushes.

The season's number

The number the seasons differed according to the civilisations and times:

Celts used to lived two seasons only (hot season or summer and cold season or winter), just as Mayas (wet season or summer and dry season or winter).

In the ancient times, Greeks and Arabs knew three seasons only (spring, summer and winter) before inserting autumn. The Romans took over the four seasons.

Ancient China counted five seasons matching the five cardinal points, five elements and five colours, five senses, five odours, five tastes etc. This fifth season was supposed to be inserted between the four other seasons. Later, China stuck to the four seasons we know. However, with a difference compared to the West. In China and Japan, the cycle of the seasons started in spring, about a month and half ahead of the Western countries 1.

annual and daily cyclesIn the West, the four seasons begin with the equinoxes and solstices and constitute an annual cycle resulting from the slope of the Earth's axis and its rotation around the sun (for more details, see the description of the celestial sphere). This cycle can be linked to:

  • The monthly cycle of the four phases of the moon resulting from the rotation of the satellite around the Earth;
  • The daily cycle of the four phases of the day resulting from the rotation of the Earth around its axis.

These astronomical cycles 2 dictate the rhythm of our lives and are at the origin of our solar, lunar and lunisolar calendars (ancient China and Japan).

The celebration of the seasons

In western countries, the seasons are marked out by customary celebrations (Easter, Summer Saint John, Halloween and All Saints Day, winter Saint John, Christmas and New Year's Eve). Let us recall that Halloween is only a vague debased recollection of the (Irish) Celtic “festival” of Samain.

The previous cycles were extended to the circadian, septenary and selenian biological cycles, the human life cycle (birth and childhood, youth, maturity, old age and death or regeneration) and the humankind and cosmic cycles.

Let us stress that the end of each cycle is the beginning of a new cycle. However, the cycles are not repeating themselves, but renewing one another; they do not provide a circular, but spiral image of the development of beings and things. That is probably how the famous corsi e ricorsi by Giambattista Vico (1668-1744) has to be understood. If we need any reminder of that, we only have to observe that the seasonal cycles follow each other and every cycle is different.

As the hours of the day and seasons are passing, the being recognizes a particular moment where he rediscovers himself and feels himself in harmony with the natural surrounding world, where the inner and outer cycles are in harmony. These privileged moments are particularly important for the artist. They are the moments he will try to convey in a poem, on canvass or paper.

1 back This is why the New Year is celebrated, in these countries, at the beginning of February of the Gregorian calendar.

2 retour Let us note that the Moon contributes to the stabilization of the Earth axis and, consequently, to the seasons cycle.