I've been working on a project for a publisher, which required finding flower and animal symbols for the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit.
The columbine has colored sepals and spurred petals, giving the appearance of a bunch of pigeons. Formerly the columbine was known as Culverwort, the Saxon word culfre meaning a pigeon. In fact, literally, ‘columbine’ is derived from the Latin word columba which means “like a dove” or “dove-colored,” from the mythological perspective, its petals symbolize the seven gifts of the spirit. The wild columbine has only five petals; however, early artists maintained the symbolic meaning by painting seven flowers on one stalk.
The dove has long been seen as the symbol of the Holy Spirit, stemming from Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan, when a dove was believed to have appeared over his head (John 1:32-34). In symbolic terms, a flock of seven doves is seen as the seven gifts of the Spirit.
NOTE: In Judeo/Christian symbolism, the owl is NOT a symbol of wisdom, but a harbinger of evil. Owls and wisdom are a North American construct.
The flower symbolism associated with the iris is faith, wisdom, cherished friendship, hope, valor, my compliments, and promise in love. Irises were used frequently in Mary Gardens, a garden in which all the flowers have some attribute of our Lady. The blade-shaped foliage denotes the sorrows, which “pierced her heart.”
When pictured with a white stone in its beak, the heron is an image of discretion, and the wisdom obtained through the Christian practice of silence. The heron's habit of standing on one leg earns it a reputation for contemplation, vigilance, divine or occult wisdom, and inner quietness. Early Christians, believing that herons shed tears of blood under stress, made this bird an emblem of Christ's agony in the garden and the sweat of blood He endured there (Lk 22:44).
While there isn’t a flower that is directly associated with understanding, white chrysanthemums symbolize truth and loyal love. Since the gift of Understanding, according to St. Thomas Aquinas, allows us to know how we are to live as followers of Christ, by perceiving truth, and perfecting our speculative reason in the apprehension of truth, therefore knowing self-evident principles, it seems appropriate to use a flower that represents truth, self-knowledge, and love. Since white chrysanthemums aren’t specific to any particular season, blooming even into winter, they are representative of the idea that the gift of wisdom is one that can “bloom” in any season of our lives, from spring to winter.
Again, there is no specific Christian symbol for understanding, but bees are symbols of hope, intelligence, inspiration, life source and as an emblem for those who seek inspiration from God. Since understanding requires inspiration from God, they seem like a good choice for understanding. They have often been considered messengers from God (gods in pagan cultures), but St. Ambrose and St. John of Chrysostom, for both of whom were noted for their gift of Understanding used them as their personal signs. Bees are also symbolic of spiritual gifts in general.
Historically, the wild geranium was associated with steadfast piety. The word "geranium" is derived from the Greek source "geranion" or "geranos," meaning crane (See animal symbol). The Greek genus refers to the flower stem's craning neck or sometimes the shape of geranium seed-heads, which resemble a crane's bill.
As with some of the other Gifts of the Spirit, there is no specific animal associated with Piety. However, piety, often called reverence, is associated with deep sense of respect for God and the Church. A pious person recognizes his or her total reliance on God and stands before God with humility, trust, and love. The crane, because it is believed to “stand watch” over its fellow cranes, protecting them from danger, as well as standing guard over itself, seems fitting. It was believed that cranes held a stone in one claw, so if it fell, they would awaken from slumber. Likewise, a Christian must carry Christ at all times and if the person should fall asleep in sin, the “stone of Christ” will fall from his mind and the person must respond by “picking up Christ” again through the sacraments, the action of a pious person. In addition, the crane reflects the symbolism of the wild geranium, which is the symbol for piety.
This one was tough, since there isn’t any animal or flower that has been used for the gift of Knowledge per se so I just made a couple of choices that seemed to fit appropriately.
The apple has long been associated with the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Bible, so it seems like it would be a logical choice for an emblem of the gift of right knowledge.
The whale is symbolically considered to be the keeper of “deep” or “hidden” knowledge because of its ability to plumb the depths of the ocean. Since the gift of Knowledge allows us to understand the deeper meaning of Christian teaching and come to experience God by entering into the depths of a relationship with him, the whale appears to be a good choice for the gift of Knowledge. In addition, whales (or leviathans) were known to the writers of Scripture, so they aren’t a modern or North American totem.
In traditional flower and plant meanings, the garlic flower is the primary symbol of courage and strength, which are the underlying meanings of the gift of Fortitude. It may have been chosen because of the “strong” smell of the plant, but it has been used for centuries to represent courage.
The black poplar is a secondary plant symbol for courage and endurance, most likely because it is planted to reinforce riverbanks and to protect fields.
The lion has long been associated with the virtues of courage and strength, the underlying meaning of the gift of Fortitude. In addition, the lion is often a symbol for Christ (such as Aslan in The Narnia Chronicles) and, as such, is considered to be the source and summit of our own Christian courage.
Fear of the Lord is not only a difficult idea to illustrate, but there aren’t any clear-cut plants for flowers that have been used for the gift. However, in the Summa Theologica II.II, St. Thomas Aquinas says that the gift of Fear of the Lord corresponds to the virtue of hope and the flowering almond (not the common almond tree, but the flowering almond) is the flower symbol for hope. Therefore, it seems not too great of a stretch to use it as the symbol for Fear of the Lord.
While there isn’t a specific animal associated with Fear of the Lord, in medieval Christianity, the falcon is a general symbol of the Holy Spirit and represents a Christian convert who now has the hope of salvation. When a falcon is pictured wearing a hood, it represents hope in the light, which is Christ in spite of the surrounding night (2 Sam 22:29; Psa 112:4; Is 42:16; John 8:12). Renaissance printers used the logo of a hooded falcon along with the words "Post tenebras spero lucem" (After darkness I hope for light) as a symbol for hope, so, going along with St. Thomas’ teaching that Fear of the Lord is associated with hope, the falcon is a logical illustrative choice.
As with some of the other Gifts of the Spirit, counsel doesn’t have a direct flower plant associated with it. However, counsel corresponds to the virtue of prudence. With the gift of counsel/right judgment, a Christian knows the difference between right and wrong, and sincerely and consistently chooses to do what is right. In flower symbolism, the hyacinth in general represents constancy, while the blue hyacinth expresses sincerity and prudence.
The swallow has long with associated with prudence, prayer, and fidelity. In addition, it is often seen as the symbol of the Prodigal Son (Lk 15:11-32), who exercised “right judgment” in returning to his father’s house. In like manner, the Christian exercises “right judgment” when returning to the sacraments after sinning.