– The Symbol of the Rose
Behold the rose in its quiet splendor draped along a weathered wall of stone, climbing over a trellised entryway, or languid in a glass vase elegant in muted sunlight. Some people will pass by without noticing. Others will give it a quick glance and hurry on. A few will stop for a moment drawn by its splendid color and fragrance.
But a rose is more than a rose to those who have contemplated the depths of its color, venerated its distinct perfume and risked the bite of its thorns. Hidden within the folds of its petals, the rose embraces ancient dreams and current hopes. The rose is a living vessel containing the emotional yearning, boundless imagination and evolving spiritual progression of humanity. The symbol of the rose, an icon as alluring as its fragrance, makes it the most enduring and endearing of all flowers.
Throughout the centuries, the rose was, and still is, venerated in poems and honored in song, its likeness sketched, painted and embroidered, its aroma coveted and imitated, its form duplicated in silk, chocolate and precious metals. And yet, the rose began as just another flower struggling to survive. The earliest fossilized roses indicate that a simple, five-petal rose blossomed more than 35 million years ago. Though other flowers became extinct, the rose persisted and flourished long before humans appeared on earth.
To survive, thorn-like prickles protected it from prehistoric herbivores. To multiply, the rose sent out lateral runners producing new shoots, and used its color and fragrance to attract pollinating insects. The rose continued to spread upon the earth as birds carried away its fruit-like seeds. It truly began to flourish, however, when humans first saw within the rose a reflection of their own souls.
As civilization developed, so did the rose. The Chinese, for example, cherished it. They cultivated varieties such as Tiny Jade Shoulders, Clear Shinning and Three Rays of Dawn. At one time roses were so popular in China their cultivation encroached onto land needed for food production. The passion for roses was so widespread a Huang Dynasty Emperor was compelled to issue an edict limiting the size of rose gardens for fear the people’s fondness for the flower would lead to famine.
In ancient Greece, the rose was considered a masculine flower. Rose garlands decorated the shield of the victorious Achilles while the goddess Aphrodite anointed with precious rose oil the corpse of the vanquished Hector. During feast days in Athens, naked youths crowned with roses danced in the temples dedicated to Hymen, the god of weddings. Devotees of Adonis grew exceptionally beautiful and fragrant roses in silver pots, believing their scent kept illness away.
In Egypt, fountains of rosewater perfumed the air. Rose petals piled knee deep carpeted the floors of Cleopatra’s palace. Wreaths of roses accompanied mummies to their tombs.
It was the Romans, however, who were particularly obsessive. As in China, so avarice was the Roman passion for roses its cultivation began to encroach upon farmland. When winter came and the fields were fallow, tons of roses were imported from Egypt at a considerable price. The cost threatened to bankrupt the empire until the Romans invented the heated greenhouse to extend the growing season.
For the well-bred Roman citizen, roses were more than just an idle luxury. They were a necessity. They required roses to flavor their wine and food. Noble women used poultices of rose petals in the attempt to banish wrinkles. White doves, their wings anointed with rose oil, flew overhead at banquets. They draped garlands of rose blossoms on marble statues of their gods. Returning war heroes were crowned with roses while petals thrown from balconies fluttered in the air. The young Emperor Heliogabalus (202 - 224 AD), following the fashion of his time, showered his dinner guests with so many roses that several of them suffocated under the deluge. No doubt, the tombs of the unfortunate dinner guests were also mantled in roses, it being the custom for wealthy noblemen to have entire rose gardens cultivated for the sole purpose of keeping their mausoleums decorated. For the dead of lesser means, offerings of rosebuds during the Festival of Rosalia had to suffice.
The rose was life to the Romans and the poet Annius Florus reminded his fellow citizens, to pluck the full rose “whose race will be run before the next setting of the sun. Gather it quickly before its glory is over.”
When the glory of the empire faded, it left behind a tarnished rose, a remnant of Roman rule, a symbol of decadent excess. Early church leaders shunned it, even tried to forbid its use but the rose endured. During the Middle Ages, the five-petals of a red rose became a symbol for the wounds of Christ crucified. Eventually the rose was transplanted to represent the Blessed Mother Mary. She became, as the poet Christina Rossetti would write hundreds of years later, “Herself a rose, who bore the Rose. She bore the Rose and felt its thorn.” Litanies in her honor proclaimed her La Rosa Mystica, the thornless rose and the rose garden of heaven.
One particular litany became known as the rosary, from the Latin word rosarium meaning rose garden. There are several legends claiming the rosary’s origin. One story tells of a monk who recited his daily prayers while working in the monastery garden. In a vision, he saw his prayers become a garland of roses presented to the Queen of Heaven.
As the laity adopted the practice, kneeling on the cold floors of cavernous cathedrals and counting their prayers on beads of pressed dried roses, the setting sun touched them with petals of multicolored light shinning through the rose window high upon the western wall. The rose window in full blossom with intricate tracery framing colored glass of dark ruby red, Chartres blue, smoky amber and muted purple, was a portal leading from a world of heavy stone and binding mortar to a radiant realm of beckoning brightness.
It wasn’t only Christians who saw the rose as a symbol of the Divine. Islamic mystics see the flower as a representation of perfection, as well as an allegorical reference to Allah. Sufi poets, notably Jalaluddin al-Rumi, saw within the rose, its petals gently unfurling in a circle, the inner path guiding the soul to the core of all that is sacred.
Rumi wrote: “In the driest, whitest expanse of pain’s vast desert, I lost my sanity and found this rose.”
The true symbol of the rose is found in its fundamental nature, that essential quality which makes it unique among all flowers. Certainly, there are other flowers as fragrant and there are flowers some people say are more beautiful, but the rose is the most beloved because it shares a kinship with human existence.
From its simple beginnings, the rose has spread across the earth; blown by the wind, carried by birds and transplanted by human hands. Countless varieties blossomed and died, new forms are continually being born through natural evolution or human experimentation, yet the essence of the rose remains unchanged. Plucked from the ground, it became an extension of communication, an emblematic language of peace and war, of sworn secrecy and declarations of love but the true symbol of the rose remained cloistered and protected.
Centuries slipped by, empires fell and cultures withered away, yet the rose survived; its soul unaltered by the imposition of ancient myths, quaint fairytales and dogmatic beliefs now long forgotten.
The true symbol of the rose is revealed to those who take the time to look. The true meaning of the rose can be seen growing wild along a roadside or trellised against the wall of an old churchyard. The inner meaning of the rose may be discovered in a bouquet bundled with baby’s breath surrounded by ferns and tied with ribbon or suddenly the symbol is revealed by a single rosebud placed upon a casket lowered into the ground.
Those who stop to ponder the essence of the rose will soon discover its message. Once found, the message of the rose unfolds like petals opening in the sun. To understand it, to realize its full meaning, however, the soul of the rose must grow in the secret garden of the heart.