A knight and his lady were walking along the side of a river when he spied a bunch of little blue flowers he wished to pick for his new wife who was eying them. However, because of the weight of his armor, while reaching out he fell into the river. As his armor pulled him down, he threw the flowers to his love and shouted “forget me not” while giving her one last loving look.
God, while naming all his creations, turned to leave, causing one tiny plant to cry out “forget me not, O Lord,” for which he then declared, “That shall be your name.”
There are many legends surrounding the origin of the forget-me-not flower, all featuring the same theme of “remember me.” In nearly every living language, a tale connected with the plant exists. In German it is known as vergissmeinnicht (vergiss, meaning “forget”; mein, meaning “me”; and nicht, meaning “not”), and a legend explaining its creation dates back to the fifteenth century.
This little blue flower is on display at the Cleveland Museum of Art in A Bridal Couple, painted around 1470 in southern Germany and currently hanging in gallery 111. It depicts a recently married aristocratic couple as the gentleman presents flowers to his new wife.
Beginning in antiquity the use of plants and flowers as symbols has a longstanding tradition in art. While sometimes painted for purely decorative purposes, flowers often contribute to the story being told through what they symbolize. For this symbolism to be truly effective, the flower itself has to be easily recognizable. During the Middle Ages, many painters took great care to represent flowers accurately. This reached its peak in the fifteenth century, seen within the pages of the CMA’s Hours of Queen Isabella the Catholic. The forget-me-not is easily recognizable in the top margin and is carefully rendered so as not to be confused with the very similar-looking speedwell that appears on the right and left and has only four petals.
The popularity of the forget-me-not can be traced back as early as the late 1300s. Henry of Lancaster (later King Henry IV of England) adopted this flower as part of his symbol when he was abroad; he retained it after returning home from exile. Combined with the letter S for sovereign, the flower, with its message of “remember me,” was used in his emblem and motto.
Later in the 1400s, forget-me-nots were popular in Germany, and it was quite fashionable to have one’s portrait painted holding them. The portrait below features a young woman dressed in finery and clasping the familiar flower. It was believed that by giving the flower to your lover, you would not be forgotten, a sentiment that continued through the ages. Nineteenth-century poet Alfred Lord Tennyson even noted, “the sweet forget-me-nots / That grow for happy lovers.”
In the CMA’s Bridal Couple, this act of remembrance is even more poignant when the complete painting is considered. It was joined originally to another painting known as the Rotting Pair, currently located at Musées de la ville de Strasbourg. Here we see the beautiful young couple transformed into a pair of hideous corpses. The two paintings together are a memento mori, a macabre reminder of the vanity of all things in the face of death.
The forget-me-not continues to be associated with loss, death, and, most importantly, memory. According to legend, after the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, forget-me-nots sprang up across the battlefield in large quantities where the blood of heroes had soaked into the ground. It has also been a tradition to plant these flowers on graves in Germany, although it is said when planted away from water, its beauty fades. Much like the fate of the bridal couple, beauty will fade over time and so, too, will the forget-me-not. In the 1380s, Geoffrey Chaucer poetically warned against such vanity:
O young fresh folks, he or she,
in whom love grows when you age,
return home from worldly vanity,
and of your heart cast up the visage
to that same God who in His image
made you, and think it but a fair,
this world that passes soon as flowers fair.
1. Paraphrased from Charles Mills, The History of Chivalry, or, Knighthood and Its Times, vol. 1 (London: Longman, Hurst, Reese, Orme, Brown, and Green, 1825), .
 Paraphrased from Sanders, Jack. The Secrets of Wildflowers: A Delightful Feast of Little-Known Facts, Folklore, and History. Guilford, CT: Lyons Press, 2003 p. 121
. Agnes Strickland, Lives of the Queens of England, from the Norman Conquest (Philadelphia: Lea & Blanchard, 1842), .
. From Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem “The Brook.”
. Richard Folkard, Plant Lore, Legends, and Lyrics: Embracing the Myths, Traditions, Superstitions, and Folk-lore of the Plant Kingdom (London: S. Low, Marston, Searle, and Rivington, 1884), 342–44.
. Geoffrey Chaucer, Troilus and Cressida, book 5, stanza 263, trans. by A. S. Kline, https://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/English/TroilusandCressidaBkI.php.