“Say it with flowers!” Christians did not wait for FTD in the 20th century to express their religious spirit and belief with flowers. The rose was a popular religious symbol from earliest times.
And in 2002 Pope John Paul II renewed this interest with his Apostolic Letter, The Rosary of the Virgin Mary, and declared 2003 the Year of the Rosary.
Why did the rose become an important symbol through the Christian ages? Is there a biblical foundation? Although wild roses grew in Palestine at the time of Jesus, the rose is mentioned neither in the Hebrew Scriptures nor in the New Testament.
In the Greco-Roman culture the rose represented beauty, the season of spring, and love. It also spoke of the fleetness of time, and therefore, inferred death and the next world. In Rome the feast called rosalia was a celebration of the dead.
In western Christian iconography, the first use of the rose appears in scenes representing the next world, paradise, together with the lily and other flowers. These flowers also became symbols of virtues and of categories of the elect; for example, the red rose for martyrs and the lily for virgins.
The rose as the queen of flowers was evidently a privileged symbol for Mary, Queen of Heaven and Earth. The rose is a symbol of Christ, too, as we see in the German Christmas song from a poem by Goethe Es ist ein’ Ros’entsprungen (Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming).
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” (Paradiso, 23 71-75).
But Dante uses also a more general symbolism of the rose, that of the universe (Paradiso, 31, 1-3), like the lotus in Asia. Indeed, with its multiple petals the rose is a beautiful image of our expanding cosmos.
Wonderful examples of this symbolism are found in 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 Testaments.
Christ is at the center of these rose windows, where he appears usually as judge or in the mystery of his Incarnation. In the later example, we see Mary presenting 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 found one of its most exalted expressions.
The symbolism of the rose assumed a Marian association in a privileged manner through two themes: the rose garden and the devotion of the Rosary.
During the Middle Ages the theme of the rose garden developed from the symbolism of the rose in the literature of courtly love, using the rose as the symbol of the beloved lady.
Later the influence of the Song of Songs led to the rose symbolizing the mystical union between Christ and his Church, or between God and each member of his people. Because Mary was honored as the model of our union with God, the rose became a privileged symbol of the union between Christ and Mary. The Litany of Loreto includes the title, “Mystical Rose.”
Mary holding a rose (and not a scepter) appears in the art of the 13th century. The theme of Mary in a rose Garden or under a rose arbor or before a tapestry of roses inspired many artists of the Rhineland.
During the Renaissance the rose garden theme came to represent human love and lovers. But at the same time the religious, Marian symbolism of the rose was popularized by the devotion of the rosary.
The structured prayer form of 150 Hail Marys was termed a “Rosary.” This expression came from the Latin rosarium or rosaries, a name given to works collecting the best of some teaching. For example, Arnold of Villanova wrote a Rosarius Philosophorum, explaining that it was a compendium, a thesaurus, a treasury of philosophy. Here the symbolism of the Rosary ended in abstract use. In contrast, the Rosary stands as a precious anthology of spirituality.
Our Lady of the Rosary is Our Lady of the roses, because the flowers are the symbols of greeting offered to the Mother of God. We greet her 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 Dürer represents Jesus and Mary handing out crowns of roses.The internationally renowned Marian Library at the University of Dayton (the world’s largest assemblage of Marian publications and materials), possesses a number of artistic portrayals of the Rosary. Some contain a circle of fifteen medallions depicting the main events of the lives of Jesus and Mary, which constitute the Rosary prayer. Ten roses representing the ten Hail Marys that accompany the contemplation of each mystery of the Christian faith separate each medallion from the others.
Another use of the rose as a spiritual symbol is emblematic. The rose became a moral emblem to illustrate various adages or maxims. 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.”
In another emblem, the rose of our life blossoms among the thorns: pain, hard work, wickedness, disappointment. But God brings good out of our miseries.
The late, revered Mariologist, Father Theodore A. Koehler, S. M., summarized the universal symbolism of the rose in Christian practice in this brief prayer:
May God look with favor upon our world, the rose he created, that it may 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.
Copyright 2018 Brother John M. Samaha, S.M.
About the author: A prolific writer, Brother John continues to write on topics concerning the Blessed Mother and Eastern Catholic churches. A Marianist Brother for over 60 years, he is now in residence at the Marianist Center in Cupertino, California.