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Mary's flowers

Our Lady of Walsingham

Wooden statue of the Mother of God with the Infant Christ at Walsingham. The statue, dating from the 19th century, was crowned with papal crowns in 1954, the year of the proclamation of the dogma of the Assumption. Shown here carried in procession traditionally led by the Arhcbishop of Westminster, the statue is surrounded by flowers traditionally associated with the Blessed Virgin Mary.

(Pictured in The Madonnas of Europe - Pilgrimates to the Great Marian Shrines of Europe - English edition 2002, Ignatius Press)

 Flowers are included in works of Christian art not only because they are pretty and decorative, but also because they had a particular meaning. ("Iconography" is the word used by art historians for the study of symbolism in works of art.) The symbolism of flowers was used especially in medieval and renaissance paintings and tapestries to reinforce the message of the main subject. Sometimes the background of a tapestry would be carpeted with symbolic flowers. In paintings, a bouquet in a vase might be included, or the Virgin or another person might hold flowers. Elaborately embroidered vestments often had floral decorations, and the borders of illuminated manuscripts were very often embellished with symbolic floral ornaments. The significance of the flowers was generally known at the time these works were originally produced for the decoration of churches or private dwellings (most are now in museums).

Children are usually very interested in deciphering the message contained in these art works. And they may enjoy using this "code" themselves. A bouquet or wreath to honor Mary can be made of real or silk flowers, and could include those that traditionally symbolize Mary and her virtues and attributes. Here are some examples:

Lilies (Easter or Madonna lilies and lilies-of-the-valley) -- white color and sweet fragrance symbolize Mary's purity, humility, loving obedience to God's will. (Jesus is also called Lily of the Valley.)

Iris (old-fashioned names were "flag" or "sword lily"): the deep-blue color symbolizes Mary's fidelity, and the blade-shaped foliage denotes the sorrows that "pierce her heart". The iris flower is the "fleur-de-lis" of France. This symbol of the Blessed Virgin is also the symbol of the cities of Florence and of Saint Louis.

Gladiolus (name comes from Latin word for sword): Sword-shaped leaves also symbolize "piercing sorrows"; also martyrdom especially red gladiolus (a palm branch also signifies martyrdom.)

Baby's Breath symbolizes innocence and purity; also the breath ("inspiration") and power of the Holy Spirit.

Ivy (evergreen): The ivy stands for eternity, faithfulness.

Violets: The violet's delicacy, color, sweet scent and heart-shaped leaves, refer to Mary's constancy, humility and innocence.

Blue Columbine: The columbine (from the Latin word for dove, columba), is a circlet of petals thought to resemble doves. The blue columbine is a symbol of fidelity, and often appears in paintings of Mary.

Marigold (calendula, "English" or "pot marigold" and common garden or "French marigold"): both flowers were used as gold-colored dye for wool. Named in honor of Mary ("Mary's gold"), symbolize her simplicity, domesticity. Marigold also sometimes denoted Mary's sorrows, perhaps because its strong scent was associated with burial ointments.

Carnations (or "pinks"): pink or red color symbolizes love, life. Carnations' color and spicy fragrance refers to the crucifixion, "love unto death". The name "carnation" also suggests the Incarnation of Christ.

Rose: The rose is regarded as the "queen of flowers", and often symbolizes Mary, the Queen of Heaven. Also an almost universal symbol of perfect love, its color, perfection of form, and fragrance, as well as its thorns signifies Mary's role in salvation history as the Mother of God the Savior who was crowned with thorns and shed His blood on the Cross for love of mankind. The rose, arising from a thorny bush, also signifies Mary, the Mystical Rose, "our fallen Nature's solitary boast", who alone of the human race was conceived without sin. It also may contain a parallel with the fiery thorn bush from which God spoke to Moses: Mary, immaculately conceived, was the means through which God became Man, The Word made flesh.

The Rosary, of course, takes its name from the rose. Saint Louis de Monfort, in his devotional book, The Secret of the Rosary, speaks symbolically of the White Rose of purity, simplicity, devotion; the Red Rose of the Precious Blood of Our Lord (he refers to Wisdom 2:8, which speaks of sinners heedlessly indulging ourselves and "gathering rosebuds while we may.") He also speaks of the Rose Tree, symbolizing the Mystical Roses of Jesus and Mary. He compares the rosebud to a rosary bead, and urges children to regard the prayers of the rosary as "your little wreath of roses for Jesus and Mary."

Several miracles involving Mary included roses as a prominent feature. Saint Elizabeth of Hungary found her apron filled with roses where she was concealing the food she was carrying to the poor to hide it from her husband. Saint Juan Diego, the Mexican peasant who received a vision of Mary at Guadalupe (near where the Cathedral in Mexico City now stands), found his tilma (cloak) filled with miraculous roses when he tried to convince a priest his vision was real. Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus, a twentieth-century French saint, is associated with roses, which she promised to send from heaven to those who earnestly prayed. Many Catholic faithful who have received inexplicable gifts of roses connect the flowers' appearance with young Saint's promise.

Devotional pictures and statues of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, especially popular in the early twentieth century, show Our Lady with her visible heart enwreathed in pink roses. (Pink, or rose-color, is a combination of purity white with love and sacrifice red.)

This image of the Immaculate Heart of Mary is most often found as a companion to the Sacred Heart image of Our Lord with His bleeding heart encircled with a crown of thorns. Children might look for these images in statuary and windows of churches. Although some of these images were sentimentalized and saccharine, they contain, nevertheless, a most striking visual metaphor for the love of God for mankind. The heart represents the innermost being and nature of the Divine Son of God who suffered and died out of love for us, and of the devotion His Mother. These images are sure to provoke questions from children who see them, and, again, offer us an opportunity to explain the imagery and meaning.

A more recent use of the symbolism of the rose is the red rosebud, appropriately, which is the special symbol of the Catholic pro-life movement.

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