At the heart of symbolism

As the seasons go by in Europe


Colours of the four seasons

The seasonal cycle

Spring, the time of revival

The spring reawakening starts with the progressive lengthening of the duration of the days and the exposure to light. A reawakening specific to the temperate areas, unknown in the equatorial areas where day and night hardly vary during the year. The temperature rise only influences the plants developing underground (asparagus, endive…).

In early spring, the soil of forests blooms with flowers before the foliage overshadows them. In the same way, catkins benefit from the absence of foliage to disperse themselves with the wind.

The revival of nature is notably symbolized by the egg associated with the Christian feast of Easter, the most important of the year with Pentecost. The egg contains all the possibilities of development in a potential state; it represents the germ, the embryonic state of the manifestation before its full blooming.

The celebration of the lily of the valley, on May 1st, marks the apogee of spring rebirth as November 1st characterizes the autumnal decline. In the Celtic tradition, May 1st was associated with the “Beltaine” festival, the Bel fire, the sun god.

Spring regeneration gave birth to the May tree, following the Christmas tree. Both trees represent seasonal avatars of the World Tree, the vertical Axis linking Heaven and Earth.

Summer, the time of harvesting

The sun reaches its apogee at summer solstice. The Midsummer day, Saint John, celebrates the celestial fire by lighting fires in the countryside. This day is favourable to gather medicinal and magic herbs.

The vegetation, in full expansion since the vernal equinox, has ripened. The spring flowers are transformed into fruit and seeds. The plants are last well before withering away with the daylight decline.

It is harvest-time to and the gathering of the fruit of hard labour. The transformation of corn into grain, grain into flour and flour into bread to be shared, also symbolizes the transformation of the being as a germ into an accomplished being.

Autumn, the time of colours

The quantity of chlorophyll in a leaf depends on the amount of light received. This quantity decreases with the waning of the days and gives way to the deployment of autumnal colourings.

It is the season of intensive agricultural work: the grape harvest, the second crop of hay, the fruit collection,the sowing of winter cereals and the green fertilizers (mustard, phacelia, clover, buckwheat) intended to cover and enrich the soil.

The catholic feast of All Saints' day is celebrated on November 1st and that of All Souls' Day the following day. They are apodictic feasts to commemorate the several thousands saints and martyrs of the liturgical calendar and the even greater number of deceased. These celebrations occult the “festival” of Samain, the Celtic manifestation of the passage from the warm to the cold season, from the living to the dead.

On All Souls' Day, the catholic population swarms over churchyards with a seasonal flower, the chrysanthemum, from the Greek “chrysos” (yellow) and “anthos” (flower). Originating from the Far East (India, China and Japan), it is favoured by horticulturists for its great capacity of acclimatization, reproduction and hybridization.

Winter, the time of coldness

The sun reaches its perigee at winter solstice. At winter Saint John, country people used to light a log in the fireplace with a fire-brand from Midsummer Day's fire. A day favourable to inner meditation, far away from the eternal summer festivities. The fire of the highest sun in the sky was used to revive the flame of the lowest sun on earth.

Everything lies dormant under the snow. The frozen soil deprives of water the roots of plants and trees, essential to the irrigation of leaves and photosynthesis. Fortunately, the autumn has stripped trees and plants of their foliage and enables them to live at a slower pace. Only conifers, holly, boxwood, ivy… preserve their ornaments in the temperate areas as well as the olive-tree, the cork oak… in warmer areas. The stripped oaks expose the mistletoe which greatly save the sap of their host in those rigorous times.

Among Celtic people, the gathering of the mistletoe was the object of a great festival around the winter solstice. The same mistletoe is still present in houses nowadays, at Christmas and, especially, New year time. Holly and mistletoe are essential to the festive season for their evergreen foliage and coloured berries.

The plant life will survive winter, thanks to the seeds spread on the ground. The cold will enable them to get rid of their casing and germinate during the following spring.

The four seasons

The various seasons are notably visible in the four phases of fruit trees: the spring flowering, the green foliation of summer, the autumnal colouring and unadorned winter.

Everyone can admire an aspect of each season: the undergrowth dotted with spring flowers, the luxuriance of summer nature, the splendour of autumnal colourings or the trees covered with snow under the winter sun. Everyone may also, according to its temperament, have a preference for a season or an hour of the day: the spring revival or sunrise, the summer heat or the shade around midday, the autumnal wind or the evening freshness, the stillness of winter or the night silence. Everyone can also appreciate the various seasons and hours of the day.

Just like everybody else, the artist can not escape his tendencies. He reveals himself in his work both by the way he emphasizes and tones down aspects of nature. The poet and the painter transpose on paper or canvas the perceptions and emotions they felt. During this process, they unite, as well as possible, spontaneousness and motive, which they combine to varying degrees. What is more reasoned in a Nicolas Poussin is mainly spontaneous and intuitive in a Paul Rubens, for example. All artists offer to the reader or spectator a representation of their own inner nature.


  • Jean-Marie Pelt
  • “Flowers, feasts and seasons”. Fayard Publisher, 1988.

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