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Flowers and Plants, Symbolism of

symbolic rose medieval specific

Early Christian theologians and medieval encyclopedists, drawing upon biblical references and classical works on natural history, frequently used flowers and plants to signify spiritual and moral concepts, holy persons, and events. Particular flowers and plants in medieval art may thus be associated with specific figures or ideas; however, not all foliage depicted in medieval art is symbolic, and the researcher should beware of overly specific interpretations that are not always applicable.


The botanical world was created by God on the third day of *Creation and figures importantly in the divine scheme. Along with the specific theological explications mentioned below, plants and flowers may more generally signify the beauty, abundance, and usefulness of nature—worthy of observation and naturalistic depiction—as well as symbolic interpretation. Scenes of Paradise or the *Garden of Eden, for example, may include lavish flora in general, with a few specific symbolic elements . The enclosed garden, full of plants and flowers, is a symbol for the Virgin *Mary .


The ROSE and LILY are among the most frequently found symbolic flowers in medieval art, both associated especially with Mary. According to Saint *Ambrose, the roses in the Garden of Eden were thornless but acquired thorns after the fall as a reminder of sin. Because Mary was conceived “without stain of original sin,” , she is called the “rose without thorns,” which is also a reference to the “rose of Sharon” from the Song of Solomon (2:1). Saint *Bernard compared Mary to a white rose (for her virginity) and a red rose (for her charity). Red roses also symbolize the blood of *Christ and the martyrs. Garlands of roses may be worn by the blessed in *heaven or may symbolize the Rosary (a series of prayers to the Virgin, often credited to Saint *Dominic). Roses are also associated with Saints *Catherine of Siena and *Dorothy. The lover’s quest for the symbolic rose is the theme of the lengthy allegorical work of the thirteenth century: the Roman de la Rose , and the rose is also used by *Dante (in the Commedia ) as a symbol for God’s love.


White lilies are also symbolic of purity and feature especially in scenes such as the *Annunciation, where they are often held by the *angel *Gabriel. As a symbol of chastity, lilies are associated with several virgin *saints (Catherine of Siena, *Clare, and *Scholastica) as well as *Anthony of Padua, Dominic, *Francis, *Thomas Aquinas, and *Joseph. The lily brought by an angel to the Frankish king Clovis (481-511) evolved into the stylized fleur-de-lys (emblem of the French monarchy).


Other flowers which may have specific symbolism in medieval art include the dove-shaped COLUMBINE (symbolic of the *Holy Spirit; the customary seven blossoms indicating the *Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit), the bitter DANDELION Page 91  (symbolic of grief and the Passion of Christ), and the VIOLET (symbolic of humility, especially of Mary and Christ).


Many illustrations of plants and flowers are found in medieval herbals which derive from classical studies on the identification and medicinal properties of plants but which show a tendency to become increasingly abstract in illustration style. Akin to the interest in allegorical symbolism noted with *Animals, the herbals and their illustrations may include imaginary or fantastic material such as the MANDRAKE with its human-shaped root that utters a lethal shriek when pulled from the ground; this symbolizes the forces of evil.

Fluellen, Joel (1911–1991) [next] [back] Flourens, (Marie Jean) Pierre

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