The Secret Meaning of Cypress Trees in Art
Cypress trees have held symbolism in cultures across the planet
Wednesday, January 31, 2024
Did you know cypress trees have particular symbolism in art, mythology, and religion?
For centuries, Middle Eastern and European cultures have revered the cypress as a symbol of the transition between life and death, with cypresses symbolizing the uplifting of the human spirit and the possibilities of eternal life.
Cypresses grow worldwide, and therefore, cultures of all types have celebrated the symbology of this tree.
Revered in one of the earliest civilizations in Iran, the cypress was declared the tree of immortality by the Iranian prophet Zarathustra, founder of the Zoroastrian religion. It has since appeared in the archeological records of ancient Athens, the Bible, ancient Rome, and many mythologies.
Cypress Vines by Erin Hanson, 2021
What is a Cypress Tree?
Cypress trees are some of the oldest plants in the world. Fossil records date the cypress back to the Mesozoic era, between 251 and 60 million years ago. This era is popularly known as the time of the dinosaurs.
During this time, there was one landmass called Pangea, which later fractured, forming the landmasses we have today. Because there was one singular landmass during the Mesozoic, the cypress spread to all corners of the land. Therefore, different cypress variants are now found on almost every continent.
Not only is the genus Cupressus ancient, but cypress trees themselves are long-lived. The oldest tree in Asia and the third oldest living organism in the world is the Cypress of Abarqu, located in the Iranian city of Abarkuh and is estimated to be between 4,000 and 5,000 years old. This tree appears in ancient poetry and carvings, and legend says that Zarathustra himself planted the tree. Other sources say that Japheth, the son of Noah, planted the tree. Either way, this tree is ancient.
There are species of cypress trees native to all continents except for Antarctica. Additionally, not only have we identified cypresses just about everywhere, but there are trees that many like to call cypresses, even though they are not related to the genus. Some trees you’ll hear called a “cypress” include the Jack Pine in Canada and the false cypress native to Japan.
The Jack Pine by Tom Thompson, 1916
Where to See Magnificent Cypress Trees
If you love cypress trees, add these trees below to your bucket list. Here are five magnificent cypresses and cypress groves that you should see.
1. Sarv-e Abarkuh or the Cypress of Abarkuh
As mentioned above, this is the third oldest tree in recorded history, thought to have been planted by Zarathustra or a son of Noah over 4,000 years ago. If you are visiting Iran, then this tree is a must-see.
2. The Lone Cypress
An oft-photographed and painted tree, the Lone Cypress represents a bulwark against the raging sea and is a sight to behold. At 250 years old, this tree is remarkable.
Stand of the Cypress by Erin Hanson, 2016
3. The ancient bald cypress trees of Black River Preserve
North Carolina is home to the fifth oldest tree species in the world, the bald cypress, now preserved along the Black River. One cypress in the forest dates back to at least 605 B.C.E., the time of the Babylonian empire, and that is not the only ancient cypress thriving along this river. Several are over a thousand years old, and all are well worth seeing.
4. Caddo Lake’s cypress forest
The largest cypress forest on the planet is located in East Texas, surrounding Caddo Lake. The immense lake/bayou stretches for 25,400 acres on the border of Texas and Louisiana, and much of the surrounding land is taken up by cypress trees.
Dappled Light by Erin Hanson, 2019
5. The cypress forest in Tai’an, Taichung
There are many cypress forests in Taiwan, but the one in Tai’an has become more popular over the years as it is very small and a peaceful break from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. If you are a regular visitor to Taiwan, this and the other cypress forests are likely the only places where you can enjoy fall color.
Another (and possibly less touristy) spot to enjoy cypresses in Taiwan is The Yuanshilin Trail in Virgin Forest Park.
At-Risk Cypress Trees in America and Around the World
Because this tree is so ancient, there are many different cypress species native to particular places worldwide.
Of these trees, some are endangered or at risk of extinction.
Unfortunately, the species that has inspired many great works of art, from Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax to Erin Hanson’s Cypress Moon, is endangered. This is the Monterey Cypress or Cupressus macrocarpa.
Cypress Moon by Erin Hanson, 2021
Another California native cypress at risk is the Gowen Cypress, Cupressus goveniana. This dwarf cypress usually only grows to about 30 feet tall on average and is on the endangered tree list.
California is home to many cypress species, and unfortunately, they are all at high fire risk. The population of Cuyamaca cypress, Cupressus stephensonii, which only exists in San Diego, was decimated during a particularly harsh fire season in 2003.
Break of Clouds by Erin Hanson, 2017
Other endangered cypress trees include the Saharan Cypress (cupressus dupreziana) and the Bald Cypress (taxodium distichum). While Bald Cypress do not belong to the Cupressus genus, they do belong to the same family as all cypresses, so we are including them here.
While it is difficult to hear that some beautiful cypresses are at risk, you can do something about this issue! Here are five steps recommended by the nonprofit organization Tree Foundation:
1. Educate yourself on local trees and visit local forests.
2. Support reforestation through active volunteering or by donating to nonprofits that focus on land management and green initiatives.
3. Learn about forests all over the world.
4. Educate your child, children, or grandchildren about forests, the benefits trees provide, and the beauty of the natural world.
5. Buy products certified by forest-friendly organizations like Rainforest Alliance, Forest Stewardship Council, and the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil.
Cypress Trees in Art Throughout the Centuries
As a giant cypress has occupied ancient Persia for thousands of years, it will come as no surprise that cypresses have occupied pride of place in many Persian rugs throughout the centuries. In fact, you have almost certainly seen the symbol of a cypress on a Persian rug, but you may not have known what you were looking at.
Iranian rug with heavily stylized cypress detailing, early 19th century
Cypress trees factored heavily in the Zoroastrian religion, which was often worshiped outdoors between two cypress trees with a fire - often fueled by the branches of those trees - in the middle. Woven artwork depicting these trees and utilizing Zoroastrian artwork often includes heavily stylized trees, some in rich red, almost as if the eternal cypresses were aflame. The symbolism depicted here is that of life beyond death.
This symbolism has been passed down the ages, with cypresses placed in tile Ottoman’s Topkapı Palace, cypresses carved into burial sites, and even a Greek myth. The mythical being Cyparissus, a boy who, once killed, grew into a cypress tree, was depicted in art throughout ancient Greece and Rome.
Ancient Pompeii fresco of Cypresses, 1st century AD
Cypresses have traditionally been planted at burial sites throughout Europe and the Middle East. However, in the Eastern part of the world, cypresses have a different meaning. In China, cypress trees are associated with good fortune and longevity, representing harmony between humans and nature. This is seen in many pieces of Chinese landscape art. While in the far West, Native Americans have traditionally seen the cypress as sacred symbols of protection and healing.
Cypress Trees by Kano Eitoku, 1590
Cypresses are found across all cultures and artistic disciplines, from pottery to fabric art, from frescoes to oil paintings.
Island of the Dead V by Arnold Böcklin, 1886
The Angel of Death by Evelyn De Morgan, 1881
While cypresses were most commonly used during the 18th and 19th centuries to depict scenes of mourning, Vincent van Gogh famously used cypresses in many of his works as a celebration, a vibrant flame-shape reaching up to the heavens.
In a letter to a friend, the painter said, “The cypresses still preoccupy me…because it astonishes me that no one has yet done them as I see them.” Many have tried to read into van Gogh’s cypresses, as he included them in many of his paintings. While the jury is still out as to what, if any, symbolism he attributed to them, the most recent thoughts by experts on his work are that he found comfort in their endurance, prevalence, and durability rather than the traditional symbolism of life and death that cypresses so often represent.
Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh, 1889
Cypresses by van Gogh, 1889
Since van Gogh, many painters have tackled the noble cypress, including Erin Hanson. Hanson is a great student of impressionist artists, and van Gogh’s work is among her favorites. So, it was no wonder that she decided to paint her local cypresses, the native trees of California.
Here are several of her cypress works, showcased chronologically:
Cypress Sky by Erin Hanson, 2013
Cypress Wisps by Erin Hanson, 2014
Cypress Rhythms by Erin Hanson, 2016
Cypress View by Erin Hanson, 2017
Rocky Cypress by Erin Hanson, 2018
Cypress Lights by Erin Hanson, 2019
Cypress Coast by Erin Hanson, 2020
Cypress Blues by Erin Hanson, 2021
Cypress Radiance by Erin Hanson, 2022
Cypress Cliff by Erin Hanson, 2023
As you can see, the towering cypresses of Monterey, California, feature heavily in Erin Hanson’s artwork, just as the native cypresses of Provence, France, featured in van Gogh’s works. Because the cypress is so ubiquitous around the world, artists can depict this ancient tree in all its forms, wherever they may find it.
Feel free to continue to explore Erin Hanson’s works here. You will notice that trees feature heavily in her landscape art, and there are many different families, genera, and species for us to explore, discuss, and share in the years to come.
ERIN HANSON has been painting in oils since she was 8 years old. As a young artist, she worked at a mural studio creating 40-foot-tall paintings on canvas, while selling art commissions on the side. After getting a degree in Bioengineering from UC Berkeley, Erin became a rock climber at Red Rock Canyon, Nevada. Inspired by the colorful scenery she was climbing, she decided to paint one painting every week for the rest of her life. She has stuck to that decision ever since, becoming one of the most prolific artists in history. Erin Hanson's style is known as "Open Impressionism" and is now taught in art schools worldwide. With thousands of collectors eagerly anticipating her work and millions of followers online, Hanson has become an iconic, driving force in the rebirth of contemporary impressionism.
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