Flowers


Upper Rhenish Master, Little Garden of Paradise (c. 15th century)

About

Many flowers have rich traditions in Catholicism. Below is a handful of sources from my own floral research, with selected quotations, on some flowers and their historical and religious backgrounds.

Sources

Curiously enough, many of the plants which came to be associated with Our Lady during the Middle Ages and the early Renaissance had been known since before the dawn of Christianity and their attributes were associated with pagan deities. Thus plants formerly associated with and considered sacred to Juno, Venus and Diana of Greek mythology, Bertha and Freyia of Scandinavian traditions were bestowed upon the Madonna. If we ponder the studies of the great humanist scholars and accept the belief that the coming of Christ brought a new sense of values into the world, then it is easy to understand how Christianity flung its shadow over the entire vegetable kingdom. In their ardor to stamp out every vestige of heathen intelligence and thought, the early fathers soon interpreted the folklore and the apparent associations of heathen nature worship with the Christian tradition. In every corner of the Old World, the life and sufferings of Christ and the everyday happenings of Mary and Joseph and the saints dominated the thoughts and the beliefs of peasant and nobleman alike. The Age of Faith had made a deep imprint.

Foley, Daniel J. “Medieval Mary Garden.” University of Dayton, 1953, https://udayton.edu/imri/mary/m/medieval-mary-garden.php.



A plant is something most people rarely, if ever, think about, but, like animals, and seen with the eyes of faith, even the lowliest plant invites wonder. Looked at thoughtfully, plants are transformed into objects of meditation, symbols and signs of our ultimate end. From their complexity and beauty, to their gratitude-inspiring usefulness as food and medicine, they orient us toward the transcendent if we’re mindful enough.

Mary Gardens: Flowers for Our Lady.Fish Eaters. Accessed 29 July 2019. https://www.fisheaters.com/marygardens.html



Vidi speciosam (Responsory for the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin). I saw a beautiful woman ascending like a dove over the banks of the waters, whose inestimable fragrance was overwhelming in her garments. And like a spring day, rose blossoms and lilies of the valley surrounded her.

Gattozzi, Bibiana. “Catholic Artistic Piety in a Motet.” The Angelus Online, http://www.angelusonline.org/index.php?section=articles&subsection=show_article&article_id=2667. Accessed 3 June 2019.



Anemones were also sacred flowers, possibly the “lilies of the field” mentioned in the New Testament. Some legends say that the red petals of these wild anemones came from the blood dripping down on them from Christ’s cross, and that they sprang up miraculously in Pisa’s Campo Santo cemetery after a Crusader ship had brought some earth for the graves back from the Holy Land.

Wells, D., and I. Patterson. 100 Flowers and How They Got Their Names. Algonquin Books, 1997, https://books.google.com/books?id=r05tI4YsidMC.



In February we found it gay with the beautiful crimson anemone (A. coronaria), which we were quite willing to accept as the ‘Rose of Sharon,’ while a little yellowish-white iris, of more modest appearance, growing along with it, represented the ‘lily of the valley’ of Solomon’s song.

Dawson, John William, and Religious Tract Society (Great Britain). Egypt and Syria: Their Physical Features in Relation to Bible History. London : The Religious Tract Society, 1885. Internet Archive, http://archive.org/details/egyptandsyriathe00dawsuoft.



Cyanus (blue) was the name of the cornflower from Mediterranean antiquity up to the 18th century. The scientific name of the genus, Centaurea (given by Linnaeus) was derived from the story of the ‘centaur’ Chiron, Achilles’ adviser. According to Greek myth, Achilles was wounded with a poisoned arrow (by Herakles), and his wound was healed by applying cornflower plants. The poison came from Hydra, in Greek mythology usually imagined as a huge poisonous water snake, but at that time interpreted as a giant slug. In Christian symbolism, slugs were associated with the devil, hence the remedy, cornflower, became a symbol of the Queen of Heaven, Mary, and Christ, and was often depicted in paintings of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, frequently seen in Christian frescos. A fine example is found in St Michael’s church in Bamberg (northern Bavaria). On the vaulted ceiling several hundred plant species have been depicted, among them cornflower (Fig. 2). […] The cornflower has also been used as a symbol of tenderness, of fidelity, and of reliability (Beuchert, 2004). Botticelli (15th century) decorated the garments of some of the figures in his paintings with a cornflower design (e.g. in the ‘Birth of Venus’). Another example from Botticelli was discussed in the Plant Culture series by Battey (2003) as a decoration of ‘spring’ personified. By contrast, cornflower has also been used as a symbol of power and majesty such as in the tapestry called ‘Verdure of arms of Emperor Charles V’ (Fig. 3). The two-headed eagle as the sign of the Habsburg Monarchy and the coat of arms is surrounded by various realistically-drawn plants, among them cornflower, with its tubular florets and characteristic bracts dominating the space.

Kandeler, Riklef, and Wolfram R. Ullrich. “Symbolism of Plants: Examples from European-Mediterranean Culture Presented with Biology and History of Art SEPTEMBER: Cornflower.Journal of Experimental Botany, vol. 60, no. 12, Aug. 2009, pp. 3297–99. academic.oup.com, doi:10.1093/jxb/erp247.



Still, such tree souvenirs were dwarfed by the colossal number of flower bouquets, and cornflowers in particular, sent to Wilhelm I at each milestone in his life. Supplanting the oak tree as royal emblem, the cornflower was so ubiquitous…that it became known as “the Emperor’s flower” (Kaiserblume) and remained so well after his death.

Giloi, E. Monarchy, Myth, and Material Culture in Germany 1750-1950. Cambridge University Press, 2011, https://books.google.com/books?id=3DFPBIFKk7YC.



As suggested by the saying below, the daisy is probably associated with this celebration because, as mentioned previously, St Michael is celebrated as a protector from darkness and evil, just as the daisy fights against the advancing gloom of Autumn and Winter.

“The Michaelmas Daisies, among dede weeds,
Bloom for St Michael’s valorous deeds.
And seems the last of flowers that stood,
Till the feast of St. Simon and St. Jude.”

(The Feast of St. Simon and Jude is 28 October)

The act of giving a Michaelmas Daisy symbolises saying farewell, perhaps in the same way as Michaelmas Day is seen to say farewell to the productive year and welcome in the new cycle.

Johnson, Ben. “Michaelmas, 29th September, and the Customs and Traditions Associated with Michaelmas Day.Historic UK, https://www.historic-uk.com/CultureUK/Michaelmas/. Accessed 3 June 2019.



Bells of Ireland, or Molucella, has long been associated with Ireland, though, because they are considered a symbol of good luck and are mostly green. Even Linnaeus seemed confused about the origins of the plant when he named them Molucella, after the Moluccan Islands of Indonesia. […] Perhaps the confusion is because Bells of Ireland have been widely cultivated all over Europe since the late 1500’s as an ornamental flower for fresh or dried floral arrangements. They were especially popularly grown in Belgium. Long before these plants were said to represent good luck in the Victorian language of flowers, they were used all over the world in wedding bouquets and arrangements to bless the couple with good fortune.

Larum, Darcy. “Bells Of Ireland Plant Info.” Gardening Know How’s Blog, https://blog.gardeningknowhow.com/tbt/bells-ireland-plant-info/. Accessed 3 June 2019.



Rue is considered a national herb of Lithuania and it is the most frequently referred herb in Lithuanian folk songs, as an attribute of young girls, associated with virginity and maidenhood. It was common in traditional Lithuanian weddings for only virgins to wear a rue (ruta) at their wedding, a symbol to show their purity.

“Ruta Graveolens.” Wikipedia, 5 Jan. 2019. Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Ruta_graveolens&oldid=876969378.



My bridal bouquet (description from my wedding program):

The cornflower is one of Germany’s national symbols. They are associated with faithfulness and the Habsburg monarchy. The last ruling Habsburgs, Karl and Zita, are on their way to sainthood, and are two of the only (almost) saints to be venerated specifically for the vocation of marriage. Rue is the national herb of Lithuania, and commonly used by Lithuanian brides for hair wreaths. […] During the Medieval Era, it became popular to dedicate a garden to Mary, and over time, numerous plants became associated with her. The flowers we have chosen stem from this tradition. Roses and Sweet Williams both have a Marian connection, and a connection to the bride’s and groom’s names (Rose of Sharon, and William). Anemones have an historical connection to both Mary and the Crusades.