Year of the Rosary, October 2002 - October 2003

The Christian Symbolism of the Rose
Our Lady and the Rose

by Rev. Theodore A. Koehler, S.M.
Director of the Marian Library, University of Dayton.Ohio


Introductory Note: This scholarly paper was presented as part of a program entitled "Roses and the Arts: A Cultural and Horticultural Engagement" held at Central State University, Wilberforce, Ohio, May 8, 1986.  In 1986 the rose was declared the national flower of the United States because some variety of rose grows in every state. Dante quotations are from his work, Paradise.

Say it with flowers! Christians did not wait until our times to express their religious life and belief with flowers.  Yet, let us acknowledge that flowers did not receive the same symbolic importance as, for example, the tree, the lamb, the sun, the city.  Nevertheless, when we study  how the rose became a symbol in Latin Christian iconography, we see that it could furnish matter for considerable research.  This address gives only some outlines about the origin and the development of this symbolism.

Why did the rose become, through the Christian centuries, a relatively important symbol in our religious iconography?  Is there a Biblical foundation?  Although wild roses grew in Palestine at the time of Israel and of Jesus, the rose is mentioned neither in the Hebrew Bible nor in the New Testament.

But the flower does appear in Greek Old Testament texts.  We read in Wisdom 2:8, "the wicked invite us to enjoy pleasure while pleasure is ours; therefore, crown we our heads with roses."  This was a Greco-Roman custom.  The Jews did not wear garlands of roses at banquets.  We cannot adorn Jesus and the apostles with roses at the Last Supper.  In our text of Wisdom quoted above, the Greco-Roman custom is cited as a pagan and sinful example.  Other uses of the word rose are found in the Greek text of Ecclesiasticus: in 39:13, "like roses planted near running waters."   In Ecc. 24:14, "Wisdom grew up. . .as a rosebush in Jericho;" in 50:8, the great priest Simon is compared to "a rose in springtime" (among other comparisons).  But according to modern scholars, these texts do not speak of roses, but of some other flowers; their identifications are very diverse: the crocus, the lily, the narcissus, the mountain tulip, and others.  We may set aside this research.  Our Latin West read these texts in the Vulgate with translations indicating the rose: Ecclesiasticus 24:18 (Vulg.: Greek, 24:14), "Quasi plantatio rosae in Jericho," and so forth.  The texts passed into the liturgy, especially in the Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Therefore, in our Latin West the symbolism of the rose is a Greco-Roman heritage but influenced and finally transformed through Latin biblical texts which were also liturgical.

The rose has acquired in the Greco-Roman culture a symbolism which can be summarized thus: The rose represented beauty, the season of spring (for example, as the flower of Aphrodite-Venus), and love.  It also spoke of the fleetness of life and therefore death.  Thus the flower referred to the next world: in Rome the feast called "Rosalia" was a feast of the dead.

This symbolism is in reality even more complex and we see it in our Christian developments.

The first Christian use of the rose appears in scenes representing the next world, that is, Paradise, together with other flowers, like lilies. These flowers also became symbols of virtues (the rose for reserve) or for categories of the elect:  the red rose for martyrs, lilies for virgins.

The rose finally became privileged as the queen of flowers.  This symbolism attained a deeper complexity when contrasted with the thorns among which this flower blossoms.  This contrast inspired the Christian Latin poet Sedulius, who wrote (between 430-450) a very elaborate comparison between Eve, our first mother, and Mary, the Mother of Jesus our Savior.

He illustrated the parallelism already made by the martyr and apologist Justin (around 150) and developed it in a deep poetic and doctrinal liturgical teaching in his Paschal song (Carmen paschale):

As the delightful and very gentle rose springs forth from a thorny bush without injuring the mother that it hides with delightful charm, so Mary, from the race of the guilty Eve, could as the second virgin wash away, with the coming sacred light, the fault of the first virgin.

The rose as the queen of flowers was evidently a privileged symbol for Mary, Queen of heaven and earth.  We see this development later during the Middle Ages, but not in an exclusive manner:  The rose became an attribute of many other holy women - for example, Casilda of Toledo, Elizabeth of Portugal, Elizabeth of Hungary, Rose of Viterbo, Rose of Lima, and, as I already mentioned, for the martyrs in general.  The rose is even a symbol for Christ himself, as we see in the German Christmas song from a poem of Goethe, "es ist ein 'Rose' entsprungen."

The Marian symbolism is well illustrated by Dante, in his description of Paradise.  His guide, Beatrice, invites him to contemplate among the heavenly inhabitants, the beauty of Mary, the Mother of God: "Why are you so enamored of my face that you do not turn your gaze to the beautiful garden which blossoms under the radiance of Christ?  There is the rose, in which the divine word became flesh; here are the lilies whose perfume guides you in the right ways."

But Dante uses also a more general symbolism of the rose: the rose is the symbol of the the lotus in Asia.  Indeed, with its multiple petals, it is a beautiful image of our expanding cosmos.  Much later, from the seventeenth century on, the confraternity of the Rosi-crucians had as its emblem the Cross, with its branches expanding in all directions of the world, with the rose in the middle, as a symbol of the universe.  Dante uses this symbolism for the final, eternal World in Heaven:

In the form of a resplendent white rose, the holy army (meaning the saints), appeared to me, that Christ made his bride in his own blood.  The other army (meaning the angels) a swarm of bees that enter one moment into the flowers, and then return to the place where their work finds its savor. . .(this other army) descended into the great flower, beautiful with all its petals, and then ascended again to the eternal indwelling of its love (meaning God)...When they descended into the flower, from rank to rank, they sent peace and ardor...."

This brings us to the gothic cathedrals and their rose windows, the circular stained-glass windows that enhance the three entrances of these churches.  These immense roses symbolize the World of Salvation offered and revealed by God to our lost human race through the Old and New Testament.  Christ is at the center of these roses, where he appears chiefly either as judge or in the mystery of his Incarnation.  In the center of these latter representations we see Mary showing forth the child Jesus; all around are figures and scenes of the Bible illustrating the history of our salvation.  In this artistic creation, the universal symbolism of the rose probably found its highest illustration.

The symbolism of the  rose became Marian in a privileged manner through two iconographical theses:  The rose garden and the devotion of the Rosary.  During the Middle Ages the theme of the rose garden developed through an interpenetration of the rose symbolism found in the literature of courtly love, using the rose as symbol of the beloved lady.  Yet, under the influence of the Song of Songs, allegorizing with love songs the union between God and his people, iconography used the rose (with the special translation of Cant. 2:2: "rose amid thorns") to symbolize the mystical union between Christ and his Church, or between God and each member of his people.  Since Mary was honored as the type of the church, the model of our union with God, the rose became a privileged iconographical symbol of the union between Christ (or God) and Mary.  The Litany of Loreto retained the title; Mystical Rose.

Let us note first that the representation of Mary holding a rose (and not a scepter) appears at the end of the thirteenth century.  In her study of Christian iconography, Gertrude Schiller explains that the theme "Mary contemplating a rose," may mean that the rose symbolized Christ; it is an allusion to the tree of Jesse, Mary being the Virga Jesse: the root of Jesse bearing Jesus.  The same writer described a remarkable statue of Mary (fourteenth century) facing a little tree covered with roses.  There, sitting in the midst of the roses, is the child Jesus who smiles at his Mother, as she smiles back at him.  Clearly, Mary is designated as the rosetree bearing Christ.  The Child is crowned with four roses (symbol of Jesus' wounds of the Cross): he is the rose that blossoms at the top of the tree of Jesse.

The theme of Mary in a rosegarden or rose arbor or pictured before a tapestry of roses, inspired many artists of the Rhineland.  Stephan Lochner (1451), in his famous Muttergottes in der Rosenlaube, painted Mary and the Child Jesus surrounded by little angels in an atmosphere of Paradise.  Mary is sitting on a cushion in a green meadow (the Sienese Madonna of Humility).  A grass-covered parapet forms a semi-circle around her and behind her is a rose arbor.  The mystical meaning is stressed by means of a veil held by two angels.  This veil forms the entire background to symbolize that heaven is open to our contemplation of the divine mystery.  At the top, in Byzantine fashion, God the Father appears, sending the Holy Spirit as a dove.  Mary's crown is decorated with pearls in the form of roses.  All this symbolism invites us to enter into the mystery of divine love:  the Incarnation and Nativity of the son of God.  The parapet is also the wall of an enclosed garden (hortus conclusus), the garden of all delights (hortus deliciarum): the garden of Paradise.

Some years later, in 1473, the Master of Colmar, Martin Schongauer, painted his Mother of God in the Rose Arbor.  We have only a fragment of this masterpiece, now in the cathedral of Colmar.  It was stolen a few years ago, but luckily the French police recovered it intact.  With Schongauer we come to the new art of painting initiated in Belgium:  the search for a perfect harmony between colors and forms.  The mystical symbolism of rose arbor was stressed in the original version of the painting as can be seen very well in a copy kept at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts.  There, the stone bench on which Mary sits is longer and the rose arbor far more extensive than in the panel of Colmar.  God the Father and the dove of the Holy Spirit are seen in the upper part of the picture.  In the versions at Colmar, the bench and the arbor are reduced in size and the Father and Holy spirit do not appear.  We no longer see the mystical rosegarden.

Matthias Grunewald, for his retable of Isenheim (1513-1515), painted a Madonna with Child, probably inspired by the composition of Schongauer.  But he suppressed the rose arbor, replacing it by a rosebush with three red flowers.  Later the roses became more ornamentation, still intended as a symbol of Mary and her union with God.  This transformation is more evident in many other paintings, for example, in the Annunciation of the Master of the Barerini Panels, now in the National Gallery of Art: near Mary, a vase contains roses: a very discreet reference to the Marian symbolism of these flowers. 

On the other hand, in a very sophisticated masterpiece, Nicolas Froment (1475-1476) represents the biblical scene in which Moses, pasturing his sheep, was surprised to see a bush in flames and not consumed.  The painter represents Moses and his sheep with the angel speaking to Moses, in the inferior part of this painting.  In the center of the upper part, various rose trees merge their leaves and flowers into a great burning rosebush; in the midst, Mary is sitting with the Child Jesus.  The symbolism of the Rose is enriched with the symbolic meaning attributed to the burning bush since Gregory of Nyssa: a figure of the virginal conception and birth of Christ.

Under the influence of the Renaissance, the rosegarden became more a theme for the representation of human love and lovers.  At the same time, the religious Marian symbolism of the rose, developed by the devotion of the rosary, became very popular.  Recently, Neville Ward, a Methodist pastor in London, England, commented on this devotion under the title, Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy, a title referring to the mysteries of the life of Christ and Mary that are meditated in the rosary.  How did such a contemplation come to be based on the recitation of 150 Hail Marys, fifteen Our Fathers, and fifteen Trinitarian praises?  It is a long story which did not originate with St. Dominic (as popularly supposed), but needed many spiritual developments in which the symbolism of the rose had its influence.  Later, the devotion gave rise to all kinds of representations (paintings, statues, engravings, etc.), showing Mary and the Child Jesus honored with roses.  It is a remarkable example of how the Bible and changing human cultures merge in the history of Christianity.  This all began with the "Hail, you favored of the Lord...," the greeting of the angel Gabriel to Mary, the virgin of Nazareth, as related in Luke 1:28.  This greeting (Chairé in Greek, Ave in Latin) inspired hymns, litanies, repeating the words Hail Mary, both in praises and also in confessions of faith in the events of our salvation.  The Greek hymn Akathistos is a model of such composition; the West knew a Latin translation of it in 800.  Among these greetings offered to Mary, one form prevailed in popular piety, the so-called "Hail Mary."

The structured form of 150 Hail Marys received the name Rosary--in Latin Rosarium or Rosarius--because it was the title given to the works collecting the best of some teaching; for example, Arnold of Villanova (1311) wrote a Rosarius philosophorum, explaining that it was a compendium, a thesaurus:  a treasury of philosophy.  We see how the symbolism of the rose ended here in an abstract use.  Our rosary then appears as a precious anthology of spirituality.

Our Lady of the Rosary is Our Lady of the roses because these flowers are the iconographic symbol of the greeting offered to the Mother of God.  We greet with spiritual flowers.  In a different perspective, Mary and the Child Jesus offer the Rosary to their devotees.  In his "Feast of the Rosary" (1506), Albrecht Dúrer represents Jesus and Mary; handing out crowns of roses.  This iconography is completed by medallions presenting the mysteries (joyful, sorrowful, glorious), for example with ten or fifty, or 150 roses, symbols of the Hail Marys that rhythm the contemplation of these great events of our salvation.  Since our Marian Library treasures various representations of this iconography even to our day, I take the occasion to invite you, if you come to Dayton, to enjoy our collections. 

The last use of the rose as a spiritual symbol, although not strictly iconographical, is emblematic.  The rose became a moral emblem to illustrate various adages or maxims of life.  For example, "Life is a rose:  its beauty fades rapidly," or "As the rose blossoms under the sun, I shall blossom under the eyes of God."  Indeed in another emblem, the rose of our life blossoms among thorns, meaning pains, hard work, wickedness; but God brings good out of miseries.

Coming back to the universal symbolism of the rose, let me conclude with a last wish, a prayer summarizing this little study:  May God look with favor upon our world, the rose He created, that it may more and more expand its petals and so glorify Him, our Creator and Father, in imitation of the rose of Nazareth, Mary, the servant of the Lord.


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