Symbols of love flourish at Leland Little Auctions Feb. 16

Symbols of love

Vintage Hungarian School still life painting, oil on canvas, indistinct signature at lower left, presented in an attractive gilt frame with linen liner, image: 30 x 26 inches. Leland Little Auction

HILLSBOROUGH, N.C. – From creation myths to the most enduring art, love is almost always a central theme. Throughout history, a full roster of things has come to symbolize love, romantic or otherwise, in various cultural, religious, and artistic ways. So, on the eve of love’s annual organized celebration, Valentine’s Day, Leland Little Auctions has plucked out all the ways love is represented in their Presidents’ Weekend Auction on Feb. 16. Absentee and Internet live bidding is available through LiveAuctioneers.

In pretty much any culture red roses are a symbol of passionate love. Pink roses symbolize warm affection and yellow roses signal either friendship or jealousy. In the Victorian language of flowers (Victorians had all manner of symbolic “languages” to address the subject of romance, which of course they shied away from looking at head on), even the number of roses given to a love interest had meaning. One rose symbolized love at first sight, two symbolized shared love, and so on until a dozen roses, which meant that the recipient was perfect in every way. Ancient Greeks closely associated roses with Aphrodite, and early Christians tied them to the Virgin Mary, and eventually the rosary.

Though “putti” are not technically the same as cherubs, which are not technically the same as Cupid, all are portrayed as plump, naked, winged babies, and all are symbols of love of one kind or another, whether it be the love between human and god or non-religious, secular love between humans. Cupid (to the Romans), of course, is one and the same as Eros (to the Greeks), son of Venus (Aphrodite to the Greeks), and is the god of love. The youth of putti/cherubs/Cupid is thought to be symbolic of love’s playful mischief.

Symbols of love

Italian composition plaque after Bertaux, mid-20th century, depicting putti in clouds, signed in plaque lower right, in a rococo style gilt frame, 20 x 16 inches. Leland Little Auctions

Humans, possibly because of our own susceptibility to unfaithfulness, tend to romanticize species that mate for life. Swans, with their graceful, pure white presence and their lifelong partnerships, have become an obvious symbol of purity and fidelity. It’s ironic, then, that in Greek myth it was in the form of a swan that the famously promiscuous Zeus finally managed to seduce Leda – one of their children would be Helen of Troy, and we all know how that ended.

Symbols of love

Mottahedeh swan-form jardinière, Italy, late 20th century, painted porcelain, labeled, 15 x 12 x 15 inches. Leland Little Auctions

While Eve’s intentions when giving the apple to Adam may be a matter of debate, the apple has had clear romantic connotations in many places outside the Bible. In Chinese tradition apple blossoms symbolize adoration. In ancient Greek myth, gods and royals were constantly tempting each other with golden apples, setting off all manner of events from marriages to wars. And as part of an autumn Cornish celebration, young men and women put apples under their pillows to evoke dreams of their future spouse.

Symbols of love

Vintage Continental School still life painting, oil on canvas, indistinct signature at lower right, presented in a period frame, 27½ x 35 inches. Leland Little Auctions

Ever since Venus was theoretically borne to shore on a scallop shell, the shell has been a symbol of love. Some say that the hard, protective nature of a shell lends it to signifying the protectiveness of love, though that imagery contradicts how often love itself is portrayed as being fragile and precious.

Symbols of love

Aesthetic Movement carved oak rocking chair in the manner of R.J. Horner. Leland Little Auctions

Once again, Zeus’s extracurricular activities spawned lasting iconography. This time, according to the myth, Zeus wanted his son Hercules, born to a woman other than his wife, Hera, to nevertheless be fed by Hera. Hera, understandably, wasn’t up for it. So Zeus tried to feed Hercules from Hera while she slept. When she woke and pushed the baby Hercules away, the milk that spilled onto the ground grew into lilies.

Symbols of love

Antique carved marble bust of a young beauty, circa 1900, signed ‘Adolphe.’ Leland Little Auctions

Why this makes lilies a symbol of romance is a mystery. Nevertheless, they have come to symbolize pure, innocent love, as opposed to the passionate love of red roses. Their connection to fertility from the Greek myth is perhaps more obvious. The Chinese also use lilies in wedding ceremonies because they associate them with 100 years of faithful love.