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Flowers, Symbolism of


Flowers have frequently been understood as signs of a larger reality, and individual species have been used metaphorically as symbols. Though the Bible mentions nearly 100 species of flora, few of the flowers can be positively identified. Even the lilies of Christ's logion in Mt 6.28 are not the flower known today. In the Scriptures generally the life and death cycle of plants is primarily a sign of the transitory nature of life; the blossoming and withering of flowers illustrate particularly the swift passage of beauty. "Man, born of woman, is short-lived and full of trouble, like a flower that springs up and fades" (Jb 14.1). "For the sun rises with a burning heat and parches the grass, and its flower falls and the beauty of its appearance perishes. So too will the rich man wither in his ways" (Jas 1.10). Because flowers signal the spring (Sg 2.12), and because of their fragrance and beauty, and yet precisely because they pass so quickly, they acquired a further symbolic meaning. A great and lasting presence of flowers is to be a sign of the Messianic kingdom. "The desert and the parched land will exult; the steppe will rejoice and bloom. They will bloom with abundant flowers" (Is 35.1).

Symbols played a prominent role in early Christian art; for example, in the catacombs of Domitilla, Praetextatus, and Callistus, and in the mosaics at Ravenna and the vault of the mausoleum of St. Constance in Rome, where garlands of flowers signify the paradisial state of the saints. Various flowers were used to designate persons and virtues. The lily as a sign of virginity is among the most ancient. The full development of this type of symbolism came in the late Middle Ages when flowers became part of an elaborate sign language, which was a major catechetical tool. The Renaissance added some of the flower symbolism of pagan times. The most important flowers were the lily (representing purity, Christ, Mary, and especially the Annunciation) and the rose, which had a wide variety of meanings depending on its color or the presence or absence of thorns, etc. The violet signified humility; the hyacinth, power or peace; the daisy, innocence; the tulip, prayer; the sunflower, soul longing for God; the lotus, eloquence; the marigold, jealousy. The passion flower illustrates the popular propensity to find symbolic representation, each of its many parts having been suggestive of an instrument of Christ's passion. Contemporary Christian symbolism is drawn mainly from the Bible and is less extravagant.

Bibliography: g. ferguson, Signs and Symbols in Christian Art (New York 1959). j. wilpert, Roma sotterranea: Le pitture delle catacombe romane (Rome 1903). h. leclercq, Dictionnaire d'archéologie chrétienne et de liturgie (Paris 190753) 5.2:169399. j. daniÉlou, Sacramentum futuri (Paris 1950). l. behling, Die Pflanze in der mittelalterlichen Tafelmalerei (Weimar 1957). k. wessel, Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart (Tübingen 195765) 6:545548.

[g. d. huck]

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