Roses and religion by Sarah Coles

Legends accrued to the rose long before it became overlaid with Christian imagery. According to a Persian legend, the nightingale fell in love with the white rose and flew down to embrace it. But she pierced her breast upon its sharp thorns, and from the drops of blood falling on earth grew the first deep crimson rose.

A similar legend involves Aphrodite stepping on a thorn, and her blood staining a white rose to produce the first red rose. The red petals of blood and suffering were also proper to the slain god Dionysos, and to Adonis. Muslims say the first rose came from the sweat of the Prophet’s brow.

The red rose is not only suffering, but consummation. It contains the pentacle, the five pointed star of Aphrodite and traditionally a magical seal and symbol of the mysterious. If you draw a continuous line from the centre of each petal, in a flattened five petalled rose, to the centre of the second-next petal, you will find you have made a pentacle.

With the high Catholicism of the late Middle Ages, the rose could be martyrdom, suffering, original sin, virginity, purity, beauty, mysticism and heaven itself. The Virgin Mary was the Rose without a Thorn, the Peerless Rose, Rose of Sharon (considered by scholars to be a narcissus, but in imagery a rose), Rose of Jericho, the Mystic Rose as well as the Garden Enclosed. More than a metaphor, the rose became a symbol with interwoven layers of meaning.

In legends of the saints the rose is a link between this world and heaven, miraculously appearing to convert unbelievers. When St. Alban was beheaded, a rose instantly sprang from his spilt blood.

St. Elizabeth of Hungary was married to Ludvig IV of Thuringia, and irritated him by giving baskets of bread to the poor. One day when he saw her Ludvig made her open the basket in order to remonstrate, and the loaves of bread turned to red and white roses.

St. Dorothy of Cappodocia became a martyr during Diocletian’s persecutions. When she was led to execution a lawyer mocked her, asking her to send him flowers and fruit from her heavenly gardens. Miraculously a child appeared with a basket of apples and roses, and the lawyer became a convert.

After St Rose of Lima died, a delegation tried to persuade an unwilling Pope that she should be canonized. Suddenly red and white roses fell in showers, covering the floor of the Vatican, and in due course the pope made Rose patroness of Peru and of all the Americas.

Other legends tell of a maiden about to be martyred, and the burning faggots turning to red roses and the unkindled to white. In these stories the miraculous roses are heavenly manifestations, reminders and harbingers of another world.

The rose’s thorns recall Christ’s crown of thorns, and when the mother of St. Rose of Lima placed a wreath of roses on her head she twisted the stems so the thorns pierced her skin.

Some legends say that before the Fall of Man, the rose was thornless. Thorns were original sin, which is why the Virgin Mary is the Rose without a Thorn. By contrast, St Francis of Assisi when tempted by the devil used thorns as an aid to virtue. He ran from his cell on a winter’s night and flung himself naked into a thicket of brambles, which turned into thornless blooming rose bushes.

Today the church of Sta Maria degli Angeli at Assisi has red roses blossoming outside in May, but they do have thorns. The pagan festal rose, parodied in the crown of thorns, became the flowery Christian halo signifying holiness and peace. Numerous paintings, like the triptych of Richard II and saints in London’s National Gallery, show angels wearing chaplets, coronets of red and white roses.

Arabs brought to Europe the first prayer beads, their origin being India where they have been used for over five thousand years. The chanting of Om or other mantras in eastern traditions achieves a stillness, a detachment from busy thought and a pause from practical concerns, and likewise in the telling of prayer beads, the chanting automatism leads to detachment and meditation.

The rosary, devoted to the Virgin Mary, has 150 small beads and fifteen larger ones, divided into fifteen sets of ten small and one large bead, used to keep count of prayers. (The word ‘bead’ is derived from the Old English bede, meaning ‘prayer’). The first large bead denotes the Pater Noster, Lord’s Prayer, and the small ones an Ave or Hail Mary said ten times, and the next large bead a Gloria, Glory be to God.

Eithne Wilkins in The Rose-Garden Game explains how Christian prayer beads were called rosaries. Since classical times collections of poetry have been called anthologies, anthos meaning a flower and anthologies being ‘poesies’ of writings gathered like flowers. In the Middle Ages a collection of prayers and hymns was often named a ‘Flower Garden’, and ‘Rosarium’ or Rose Garden was another favourite appellation.

During the 14th and 15th centuries the rose, rose bush, rose garden and rose garland were used with explicit reference to the prayer beads. St Catherine of Bologna, a Dominican nun who died in 1463, is said to have composed a rosarium of verses on incidents in the life of the Virgin, to be meditated with each Ave of the beads. The exercise on the beads became officially known as the ‘rosary’, the rose-garden, and by extension the beads themselves, the material adjunct to the exercise, also acquired the name.

Legends give various origins of the rosary, and one says it was devised by St. Dominic, to whom the Virgin presented the first one in a vision. In the village church of Raron, in the Rhone valley, there is a carved polychrome altarpiece in which the Madonna, floating on roses and framed in roses, bestows on St. Dominic a long string of the beads that are considered roses.

The Golden Rose is an ornament made of pure gold and conferred by the Pope on churches and devout monarchs and dignitaries. Henry VIII was awarded Golden Roses by three different popes before his break with Rome. The shining golden flower was Christ in his majesty, and the thorns and red tint told of his passion. In the early days it was a six inch rose the Pope could hold in his hand, but later became a massive rose bush sometimes weighing twenty pounds.

In the Middle Ages the idea of a gold coloured rose must have seemed as illusory as a blue rose now. The yellow Rosa foetida was introduced to Europe from Turkey and Persia in the 16th century when, according to Gerard’s Herbal (1597), it was thought to be a wild rose grafted to broom.

By the 17th century the imagery of the rose became debased and, associated with the mirrors, pipes and bubbles of Dutch Vanitas paintings, it could symbolize all that is trivial and fleeting in this world.

Scent is integral to the rose. The Golden Rose had a central receptacle into which musk and balsam were poured to give it scent. In legends a classic sign of holiness is when a saint’s coffin is opened and instead of the smell of putrefaction, out comes the smell of roses.

From ancient times roses have been placed in tombs and planted beside graves. A wreath of five petalled flowers was discovered in an Egyptian tomb (ca. AD 26) by Sir Flinders Petrie. ‘In the dry desert air,’ he wrote, ‘the wreath’s petals had shriveled, but they still kept their colour, and when placed in warm water, the blossoms seemed to come back to life. Buds swelled, and the pink petals spread, unfolding to reveal the knot of golden threads at the centre just as they must have been on the morning of the funeral. A botanist at Cambridge had little trouble in identifying these flowers as roses, specimens of Rosa richardii (R. sancta), a species already known as the Holy Rose of Abyssinia because at that time it was still a fixture of the Coptic Christian churchyards in that country.’

The Persians saw the rose as a symbol of spiritual attainment and transcendent desire. Rumi, the 13th century Sufi mystic and poet, called the rose a ‘wise loveliness’, a manifestation of the experience of the ‘Eternal Beloved’, and wrote,

‘Like a rose, I smile with all my body, not only with my mouth
For I am — without myself — alone with the King of the World.’

The human condition is grounded in pursuit of the whole, of making sense of the universe we live in. The symmetry of the rose is a universe in microcosm. Like other symmetrical patterns, the lotus in eastern traditions, or the acorn in which Julian of Norwich saw the world, its shape holds containment.

The mandala of overlapping waves of symmetrical petals, leading to golden stamens and then to the central boss of styles, leads us like the pollinating insect inwards to its heart. It then releases us like a charged bee as the petals become widening circles like raindrops on water which could expand to infinity.

In its own form, and in the form of the rose windows of the gothic cathedrals, it becomes an instrument for meditation, inwards for centering contemplation at the still heart and outwards for releasing the spirit beyond immediate confines.

In Notre Dame of Paris, the coloured arrows of the north rose streak out from the central petalled circle like sparks of the universe exploding. In the north rose of Chartres Cathedral the outer sections whirl like planets round the petalled centre.

In Dante’s Paradise heaven is given similes likes the stages of a mountain and the ascending branches of a tree, but at the finish it becomes

‘the gold of the eternal Rose
Whose ranks of petals fragrantly unfold.’

Then, in Canto XXXI, Heaven takes the form of a white rose surrounded by the heavenly host, ‘like bees that in a single motion swarm … descended all at once on that great bloom of precious petals’.

The rose of literary and religious heavens is always at a peak of perfection, but actually most of us find the relentless dynamic of the rose’s unfolding, fading and falling petals integral to its allure. In the midst of this cycle, in our gardens on a still June evening, it becomes heaven and eternity contained in a moment.

This article appeared in the Autumn 2003 issue.