Themed route: Nature

Experience the world of plants through 12 pieces of art from the museum's collections. From Antiquity to the 20th century, as civilizations progressed, discover the importance of plants and flowers as endless sources of inspiration for artists. The audio tracks stored on the museum's audio guide expand on the work in the gallery.

Stele dedicated to Osiris and the gods of Abydos by the standard-bearer of King Akhepura-men-sou-iam (Règne d’Amenhotep II (vers 1450-1425 avant J.-C.)) by AnonymeMusée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon

Stele dedicated to Osiris and to the gods of Abydos by the standard bearer of King Aakheperou-men-sou-iam

Egypt; Reign of Amenhotep II (c. 1450–25 BC.); Polychrome limestone.

The lotus appears in its different states—stem, bud, and flower—on this funerary stele.

In the upper section, the dead man, sat with his wife, breathes in the flower's sweet smell that holds the promise of the vitality to be found in the afterlife.

By their sides and in the lower section, their daughters bring the flowers' buds to their nostrils.

The lotus is used both as an elegant decoration for ladies' wigs and on vases placed under the offering table.

These lotuses are actually waterlilies: the blue variety (Nymphaea caerulea) blooms with the day's first gleams of light, whilst the white one (Nymphaea lotus) blossoms at night.

The real lotus (Nelumbo lotus) was only introduced to Egypt when the Persians arrived towards the end of the 6th century.

The blue lotus, with its golden yellow stamens, is a symbol of life and rebirth. According to certain religious traditions it is said to have been the first flower, and the morning sun appeared in it above the waters at the beginning of the world.
For ancient Egyptians, its blooming symbolized the birth of the divine being. This is why it often features in votive and funerary scenes.

Hydria, Scene from the Eleusinian mysteries (reverse) (2e quart du IVe siècle av. J.-C.) by AnonymeMusée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon

Hydria—Scene of Eleusian Mysteries

Athens, Greece; Second quarter of the 4th century BC; Ceramic with red figures and colored highlights.

The reverse side of this hydria is decorated with a plant pattern. It is an ancient Greek vase designed to hold and pour water.

The main floral motif is the palmette, inspired by palm leaves.

Curved lines and spirals both emphasize and link the patterns.

Hydria, Scene of Eleusinian Mysteries (front) (2e quart du IVe siècle av. J.-C.) by AnonymeMusée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon

This oscillating and plentiful decoration contrasts with the stasis of the 3 deities on the front.

The goddess of agriculture and fertility, Demeter, can be identified sitting in the center with a scepter in her hand…

her daughter, Persephone, back on Earth after six months spent in Hell, is holding two lit torches...

and Dionysus, god of vine and wine, is perching on a rock.

Their presence in this scene alludes to seasonality, as well as to the culture of vines and wheat.

Hydria, Scene from the Eleusinian mysteries (reverse), Anonyme, 2e quart du IVe siècle av. J.-C., From the collection of: Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon
Show lessRead more

The ancient Greeks knew the different medicinal properties of plants. For example, Demeter used a poppy to forget for a short spell the absence of her daughter, Persephone, who had been taken by Hades, the God of Hell.

Part of a frieze (Début du XIIIe siècle) by AnonymeMusée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon

Part of a frieze

Iran; Early 13th century; Ceramic with shiny metallic decoration on a dark glaze.

Motifs inspired by flora form a base for inscriptions on this section of architectural frieze from 13th century Iran.

Islamic art generally keeps its distance from botanical reality, as is the case for this object, where it is difficult to identify specific plants, although their key components can be found.

The composition is structured around the coiling of the stems: leaves and flowers attach themselves to it, echoing the continuous and rhythmic movement of the calligraphy inscriptions.

The copper-colored metal reflections illuminate and emphasize the blue and white enamel and contribute to the creation of a dynamic composition, known as arabesque.

This endless movement, which transcends the space of the object and the visible world, is a reminder of the infinite nature of divine creation.

In Islamic art, abundant nature symbolizes life and alludes to the garden of Paradise, which Muslims strive towards.
The word "paradise," originally Persian before entering the Greek language, means "enclosed space," and harks back to the lush gardens of Antiquity.

Vase (1898/1900) by Émile GalléMusée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon


Émile Gallé; 1898–1900; Glass with two layers and applications.

A desire for botanical truth becomes apparent in this Art Nouveau vase with its details of hazel catkins, anemone flowers, and branches.

Émile Gallé's perfect mastery of the material and his technical innovations meant he could give free rein to his creativity.

The bright colors of the catkins and the pearly, purplish background highlight the undulating shapes of the different motifs.

Each color is subtly embellished by its neighboring color, and offers a poetic view of nature.

Émile Gallé's passion for flora was born during his walks in the Lorraine countryside.

Throughout his life, he would contemplate and study it with the rigor of a scientist. He collected plants grown in his garden and around his factory to feed his creations and to use as models.

Emile Gallé had his motto, "my roots are in the depths of the woods," carved onto the oak door to his workshops, together with the branches and leaves of chestnut trees.

The Family Tree of Saint Anne (Vers 1500) by Gérard DavidMusée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon

The Lineage of Saint Anne

Gérard David; 1490–1500; Oil on canvas.

Scrolls with graceful coils occupy the whole upper part of this painting with its gold background.

Comparable to the branches of a tree, they seem to be rooted in the throne, on which Saint Anne, her daughter Mary, and the baby Jesus are sat.

Busts of figures appear in delicate corollas of flowers at the ends of the curls: these are the saint's descendants.

At the top of the composition, the corolla motif makes way for a heavenly cloud supporting the Virgin Mary and her child.

This family tree follows the model of the tree of Jesse, which has been depicted since the 6th century and which features the ancestry of Christ. Of his ancestors, King David is the most renowned.

Anne's central position demonstrates the resurgence in devotion to the saint around the 1500s, when this painting was created.

Earth (1610) by Jan Brueghel l'Ancien, dit de veloursMusée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon

The Earth

Jan Brueghel the Elder; 1610; Oil on canvas.

A great variety of fruits, vegetables, and ornamental or edible plants—a real inventory of the products of nature—appear in the foreground of this painting.

In this painting, Jan Brueghel, assisted by the discovery of new lands, fed people's appetite for knowledge about the universe that was developing during his time.

Harking back to Greek Antiquity, the goddess Demeter and other figures linked to nature stand behind this abundance of plants.

Multiple views of nature and of the world complement each other here: ancient paganism, a scientific approach and Christian faith.

They allow Jan Brueghel to demonstrate his talent as a landscape and still life painter, two genres that gained their autonomy at the beginning of the 17th century.

Vase of flowers with a broken tuberose (1807) by Jan Frans Van DaelMusée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon

Vase of flowers with broken tuberose

Jan Frans van Dael; 1807; Oil on wood.

At the beginning of the 19th century, the painting of flowers was an art form for specialists.

Like his contemporaries, the artist Jan Frans Van Dael worked from nature and from engravings to offer a wide range of flowers: peonies, roses, primroses, African marigolds.

In the foreground of this painting, the white tuberose with the broken stem meets the yellow and violet flame tulip, and the red poppy at the top of the bouquet.

The artist offers multiple points of view in a masterful composition.

This choice of flowers, which blossom at different times of the year, invites us to reflect upon the beauty of nature and on the fragility of life by evoking the transient character of earthly existence.

The motif of the broken flower is replicated by the painter Antoine Berjon, who from 1810, worked as the flower-drawing teacher at Lyon's School of Fine Art. In his painting, "Flowers and fruits in a wicker basket," the tuberose is replaced by red peony poppies.

Flower of the Fields (detail) (1845) by Louis JanmotMusée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon


Louis Janmot; 1845; Oil on wood.

Flower of the Fields (1845) by Louis JanmotMusée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon

To create this idealized portrait, inspired by art from the Italian Renaissance, Louis Janmot would have used a young female friend as a model and painted her on his workshop's patio, in front of the Alps.

Crowned with bindweed…

a bouquet of wildflowers—daisies, cornflowers, buttercups, poppies—in each hand...

she is sat in front of a blossoming dog rose and other wild plants.

The care taken when depicting these flowers echoes Lyon's flower painting tradition, even though the artist does favor uncultivated varieties here.

This female figure could, therefore, be interpreted as an invocation of the goddess, Flora, in this image of connection with nature, illustrating the metaphorical character of its title.

Echoing the name of the painting, these wildflowers could allude to the freshness of youth and its ephemeral character, much like the butterflies that the young woman appears to be gazing at.

Nave Nave Mahana (1896) by Paul GauguinMusée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon

Nave nave Mahana

Paul Gauguin; 1896; Oil on canvas.

In this intensely colored composition, Tahitian women and a child are gathered beside a stream, under some slender-trunked trees.

One of them is wearing a wreath of flowers in her hair, whilst another has a flower hooked over her ear.

The floral motif is also repeated on a pareo (wrap-around skirt).

The boy sitting on the left and the young woman not far from him are eating a piece of fruit.

In this idyllic setting, time has stopped. The work's title, "Nave nave Mahana," written in Maori, means "delightful days," evoking the idea of paradise that Paul Gauguin was looking for when he settled in Tahiti.

This piece is, however, ambiguous: these immobile and silent figures, with their solemn eyes, suggest loneliness and melancholy

Paul Gauguin's book describing his life in Tahiti—"Noa Noa"— was published on May 1, 1901. The adjective "Noa Noa" means fragrant in the Maori Tahitian language. For the artist, everything was "Noa Noa" in Tahiti: landscapes, ferns, women bathing, the wet soil...

Credits: Story

Lyon Museum of Fine Arts
Route design: Véronique Moreno-Lourtau - cultural department.
Directed by: Mathilde Hospital - communication department.
Gigapixel photos: © Gilles Alonso -
Photos: © MBA Lyon - Alain Basset, Stéphane Degroisse, Mathilde Hospital

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
Explore more
Related theme
Treasures of Lyon
Discover the city of two hills
View theme
Google apps