Religious Symbolism of Roses

by Judy Brown

The rose has been a powerful religious symbol for thousands of years. Associated with the Greek and Roman goddesses of love, rose imagery passed into Greek versions of the Old Testament. From there it was adopted into the language and liturgy of the early church and became closely associated with the veneration of Jesus Christ's mother, Mary. It is also part of Indian, Persian and Islamic traditions and is associated with symbols of love, secrecy and death.

Greek and Roman Religions

The rose was sacred to Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, and to her Roman equivalent, Venus. It represented beauty, springtime and love. Because it also suggested the swift passage of life and the mystery of constant creation, the rose became associated with death and secrecy. The Rosalia was a Roman feast of the dead. The Roman custom of hanging a red rose overhead in confidential meetings is remembered in the plaster ceiling roses that still decorate council halls and formal dining rooms all over Europe, and anywhere touched by European architectural style.

Early Christianity

The rose of the supreme goddess Venus transferred to Mary in Christian tradition. According to Ambrose, a third-century saint, the roses in the Garden of Eden grew thorns only after man’s fall from grace, as a reminder of human sin and guilt. When the Virgin Mary was exalted as the queen of heaven and as a second Eve, the paragon of innocence and love, she was linked with the emblem of a thornless rose and the title “rosa mystica.”

Medieval Christianity

Rose imagery proliferated from the 12th century with the spread of Marian worship. Stained-glass rose windows adorned the Gothic cathedrals built at this time. In the 13th century, Saint Dominic established the rosary as a series of prayers to the Virgin, symbolized by garlands of roses in heaven and beads on earth. Thus the rosary and Mary’s rose came to symbolize union between God and mankind. Medieval art often depicts Mary in an enclosed rose garden, variously representing a bridal chamber, the Immaculate Conception or the Garden of Eden. With the rose garden, the secular imagery of courtly love intertwines with religious art, reinforcing its effect. Both sacred and secular interpretations draw on themes from alchemy, elaborating the symbolism of different kinds of roses: white for innocence and purity, red for passion and death. The emblem of the Rosicrucians, a later medieval secret society of alchemists, was a cross surmounted by a rose, indicating that mystic divinity (the rose) is attained through mortal suffering (the cross).

Other Middle-Eastern Religions

For Hindus and Buddhists, the shape of the rose evokes the cup of life or the center of Mandala, a geometric configuration of the meditational path to Nirvana. In Islam, the rose is the symbol of the soul, flowering among thorns. Sufi Muslims of the Rose Crescent sect traditionally anointed themselves with rose oil before prayer, believing that the scent could help them transcend earthly preoccupations. As in Christianity, white roses stand for purity or virginity, red roses for love or martyrdom. Islamic legend also associates yellow roses with infidelity and jealousy. The rose also symbolizes secrecy in Persian alchemy. In the words of 12th-century poet Farid ud-din Attar: “Mystery glows in the rose bed and the secret is hidden in the rose.”

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