The picture is one of the earliest independent floral still lifes ever painted. It is one of three flower pieces painted by Ludger Tom Ring the Younger in 1562, all three depicting alabaster vases set on tabletops against a dark background, their bouquets filling the picture space. Each of the bouquets is relatively simple, of the other two flower paintings, both in Münster (Westfälischer Kunstverein; fig. 1), one consists only of irises while the other is made up of lilies and two irises. In Still life with flowers, four white narcissus dominate the arrangement with violets and vinca minor purpurea, a kind of periwinkle, appearing at the base of the vase. While their similarities connect these three paintings chronologically, important differences between them suggest subtle distinctions in their use and meaning.
Both of the Münster paintings bear the following Latin inscription running diagonally across the swell of the vase: IN VERBIS IN HERBIS ET LA[PIDIBUS DEUS], or 'God is in words, in plants and in stones'. The idea that God's attributes were revealed in the beauty, order and intricate structure of the universe existed in philosophical and theological treatises since at least the fifth century BC. It was expressed in The Bible with the story of Creation and played a significant role in Protestant thought of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This argument was central to the pharmaceutical theory and practice proclaimed by Paracelsus a quarter of a century earlier, who used it to advocate the use of medicines at a time when medicine and alchemy were seen by many as one and the same. The inscriptions on the Münster vases proclaims the flowers God's rather than Ring's creation and this idea, supported by a mimetic technique, remained central to flower painting through the first quarter of the seventeenth century. By contrast, the inscription on the vase in Still life with flowers consists only of the artist's signature: LVRING.
Still life with flowers also differs from the Münster panels visually. The one stray blossom and sprigs of ruta graveolus (also called rue or herb of Grace) on the tabletop give the image an altogether less formal feel. Unlike the flowers that make up all three bouquets, ruta graveolus was not a decorative plant but a kind of aromatic cooking herb and its casual placement next to rather than in the vase suggests a different use for it. Contemporary references mention paintings that were set into both the cabinet doors and counters in Apothecary shops and it has been suggested that this painting served such a function (Lorenz and Trescher 1996, p. 390). All three panels could have been used in this context but the smaller scale of Still life with flowers (the Münster paintings measure 63 x 26 cm.) and the fact that it has been cut down slightly on the right suggests its actual use in this capacity.
While Ring's flower paintings of 1562 maintain a certain level of Christian symbolism, they represent a dramatic break from what came before in their independence from overtly religious imagery. Indeed, Hans Memling's Jug of flowers (Thyssen Bornemisza, Madrid; fig. 2), painted around 1490, is often cited as the earliest surviving depiction of flowers alone but it appears on the reverse of a portrait of a man kneeling in prayer that most likely formed one wing of a diptych opposite a depiction of the Virgin. The flowers in Memling's vase, a lily and three irises, are associated with the Virgin and the vase itself is decorated with the monogram of Christ. Ring's choice of flowers for the Münster paintings may well have maintained their Marian associations but narcissus in this painting were notoriously earthbound. Violets and other small flowers could be considered emblems of faith and humility but their appearance in other of Ring's later floral still lifes (one previously in Galerie Lingenauber, Düsseldorf) clearly do not relate to such iconography. Van Mander mentions flower paintings by two of Ring's contemporaries, Lodewijck Jans van den Bosch and Pauwels van Aelst (son of Pieter Coecke van Aelst), but none of them have survived. Ambrosius Bosschaert's first dated painting did not appear until some forty-five years later.
For all the importance and innovation of Still life with flowers, Ludger Tom Ring was primarily known during his lifetime as a portraitist. He studied with his father in Münster and traveled to England and the Netherlands in 1550, where he copied The Flight from Troy (1551, Westfälisches Landesmuseum, Münter) by the Mannerist painter Lambert Suavius, whose original now hangs in Utrecht (Centraal Museum). Ring's Kitchen piece with the marriage at Cana of 1562 (Gemäldegalerie, Berlin) also reflects his encounter with the works of Pieter Aertsen and Joachim Beuckelaer.