Symbolism Sunday, The Rose

April 24, 2011

Rose Brooch 1890It’s time to wake up and smell the roses with today’s Symbolism Sunday! Before we begin, just let me tell you how much fun I have fitting so many dreary puns into my articles, so I know it’s an early morning start, but don’t let that spoil your day.

Of all the symbols that I discuss on the site, the rose is one of the most understood and the most culturally ubiquitous. This is a symbol which has survived through different eras of popularity has become one of the primary symbols of love today and due to its variety, there are several different meanings for each. So let’s place a wild rose upon the door and get to some confidential matters surrounding the rose…

To begin with, let’s look at the characteristics of the rose which benefit its prominence within the cultural lexicon; firstly growth. The plant, part of the ‘Rosa’ genus, has over one hundred species, native to Asia, Europe, North America and Africa. The plants are extremely resilient, growing in abundance, hence they are constantly present in modern human cultivation and therefore at the front of our minds. Next is colour. Roses are grow from white/pink to red/yellow, however various species have been cultivated to grow in many other varieties of colour. The physical nature of the rose is very important to us as well. We have a flower with its very dangerous thorns, so already it relate back to the inherent beauty of the flower and its subsequent danger. When you balance this with its love connotations, the obvious perils of love become clear. As well as its pleasant colour, the smell of the rose is sweet and its natural perfume cannot be overlooked.

Various uses for the flower involve ingestion to decoration, it is truly a versatile motif for us to consider. The rose hip is used for tea, preserves, such as jam and marmalade and the oil production from the seeds is used in various cosmetics. Perfume is one of the major products of the rose and once again relates to its natural scent. The by-product of this being rose water, which if you’ve had a good Turkish Delight (a good way to start your Sunday), you can imagine the glory of good rose water. The rose has also been used for its medicinal purposes in Asia, but it is for the rose’s decorative talents that we focus upon it today.

This is Symbolism Sunday and it’s not a gardening show! You want to know about the symbolic meanings of the rose before you dive into your Turkish Delight and cup of rosehip tea for breakfast.

Ok, let’s look at the rose in its normal state. Obviously, the rose is a symbol of love, but if I give a rose to my loved one, it also shows that I think this person is beautiful, that there is unfailing love and hope. It’s no wonder that Valentines Day is so reliant on this flower to symbolise its message. However, a cabbage rose is considered to be an ‘ambassador of love’, while a white rose represents ‘I am worthy of you’. Think of that next time you’re presented with a white rose!

The red rose, however, is a more unusual one. The red rose is the most popular colour given and has several meanings. The red colour itself denotes passion, with an association to Venus (love, fertility and beauty) in Roman mythology and in Greek mythology, Aphrodite is said to have named the flower, while Chloris created it. As the story goes, Chloris was wandering through the wilderness on one fine day, then low and behold, the beautiful, nubile corpse of a nymph was discovered among the bushes. Chrlois, being herself a nymph who did enjoy things like flowers, growth and Spring, turned this corpse into a flower. Aphrodite bestowed beauty upon the flower, Dionysus offered a sweet scent, Zephyr pushed aside the clouds with a mighty West Wind and Apollo shone down all the power of the sun to make the rose bloom. Eros has also been associated with the rose (silence), leading into the phrase ‘sub rosa’ (under the rose / to keep a secret) which was established with the Romans placing a wild rose on the door where secret discussions were underway. Secrecy, love, beauty and passion (regardless of what the passion may be referring to) are all part of the symbol’s meaning.

c.1230, the appearance of  the poem “Le Roman de la Rose” appeared, itself using the rose as the name of the protagonist and the symbol of female sexuality. Naturally, for its time this French allegory was considered quite controversial at the height of the Middle Ages. It was translated to from Old French to English as ‘The Romaunt of the Rose’ and consistently retold.

As a Christian symbol, the red rose is adopted as the presenting the blood of the Christian martyrs. The Virgin Mary is associated with the white rose, hence its relation to purity, virginity and innocence. Notice from this the same relation to white enamel and its application to memorial jewels. As legend would have it, the rose grew in Paradise and did not have a single thorn upon its stem. Once again, you have Adam and eve to blame for any thorn-related injuries you suffer while doing the gardening, as when they were expelled from Eden, the beautiful nature of the rose remained, but the thorns appeared to remind us all of our lost paradise. The Virgin Mary, being without the original sin, is referred to as the ‘rose without thorns’ for this very reason. Indeed, the five petals have been likened to the five wounds upon Christ.

As we move towards the symbol of the rose for mortality purposes, we also have to understand how the rose is depicted. If the rose is a bud or flower, this will denote the age of the person at time of death and is especially important when viewing Neoclassical pieces. If the flower is a bud, then you will find the age to be often twelve years or younger. If in partial bloom, a teenager, full bloom in the early or mid-twenties. Particularly this is important as this is considered the ‘prime of life’, though for times with higher mortality rates, those who made it beyond might have various other symbols to denote long life. The broken rosebud relates back to the young person again, this time with a life cut short. If rosebuds are joining, then there is a strong bond between two people, such as a mother and child who may have passed at the same time. The rosette is reserved for the Lord, messianic hope, promise and love (note the religious addition to the more personal reasons for the rose symbolism of love). The wreath of the rose is beauty and virtue rewarded, connecting to other forms of floral wreath and garland. A more modern approach to the colours of the roses are the colours being identified as dark pink; gratitude/appreciation, light pink; admiration/sympathy, white; reverence/humility, yellow; joy/gladness/friendship and black; death.

Like most floral motifs and Romantic concept that we accept as being ancient in this age, we have the 19th century to thank for many of our perceptions and values. The rose became heavily cultivated with the introduction of the evergreen China rose in the 19th century, but there was a high degree of interest in the flower during the 18th century. The red/white rose had previously become the symbol of the House of Tudor (Henry VII – Elizabeth I), adopted after the Battle of Bosworth in 1485. This was the finish of the War(s) of the Roses, between the House of York, which had the white rose and the House of Lancaster, which had the red. As it was united, the Tudor Rose became the symbol of England. It should be noted that the national flower of the United States is also the rose.

So, if any of this has settled in yet; the rose was a popular flower. Ok, now let’s get to the good stuff.

Where will we see the rose in early modern jewellery history, specifically mourning and sentimental jewels? Much of the use of the rose is in relation to the popular art of the time. We must look at the 17th century as the best place to start. Here, we have the Baroque motifs merging with the mainstream memento mori motifs, which would later be adopted by the Rococo. Whilst it would be most common to find the skull, crossbones, scythe, hourglass, angels and death figures set under faceted crystal, the other side to this was the popularity in personal initials set with gold wire and balanced with other motifs. From this, the rose (often a personal statement or in relation to a family coat of arms) could be depicted. As well as this, the earlier mentioned Baroque gold-work with heavy natural flourishes often involved a multitude of flora in decoration, which is where you might also spot a rose.

Posy 17th century ring rose symbolism

Note earlier how the rose was taking connotations for love and female sexuality c.13th century? Consider this with posy rings popular in the 16th and 17th centuries. Personal motifs and sentiments hidden inside a ring. Once again, the ‘sub rosa’ concept of keeping secret, yet retaining that passion comes into play. Much like with the forget-me-not, the rose can be found inside (and sometimes outside) of the posy band as a decoration.

Moving into the Neoclassical era of c.1760-1820, we can find the rose as a secondary motif in memorial and sentimental depictions. Often in sentiment depictions, the rose would be a motif given between a scene of two lovers. In mourning depictions, we have to look at the above connotations of what the rose means in terms of age and placement. If at the feet of the tomb or the mourner, one must consider the rose as a life cut short, yet still retaining that loving aspect discussed.

By the 19th century, the influx of various styles that captured and morphed the views of the natural world into mainstream art all captured the rose to some degree.

Gothic Revival Ring with Rose Motif

Note the border decoration

The Gothic Revival period was quite strong on simplicity and boldness in the presentation of the mourning subject, without the excess of the Neoclassical depictions. Big, bold enamelwork was typical, however, the period did take into account the heavy Baroque borders in much of the gold-work from 1830-1840s, which is where the rose will be in these forms of jewellery. As a motif on its own, the rose was not a mourning sentiment that grew beyond the physical grave and it was a rather racy symbol for love sentiment to be proudly displayed. Not to say that it wasn’t, but the shift back to wholesome Christian values made the outward display of love and affection more ambiguous and less overtly passionate in intent.

The Neoclassical Revival periods, the Rococo Revival and also Baroque combined with the Romantic and Pre-Raphaelite movements from the mid to late 19th century had a tremendous impact upon the artistic and design landscape in memorial and sentimental jewels. Changing social values meant that in the latter 19th century, the rose would be seen more as an individual love token, often in silver, or embossed into a locket (also commonly silver). Increased mobility lead to the need for parting tokens, greater fallout from wars (Civil war, Indian conflicts) and higher population vs. industrialisation led to higher mortality, which impacted the nature of the self and how passions could be distributed in public. The latter topic also being the catalyst for greater access to metals and precious stones, leading to the creation of love tokens and also the rise in more organic jewellery designs, such as the Art Nouveau movement. A movement which adopted a passion for the natural world in organic designs and the use of materials within to enhance the organic nature of these jewels through colours and techniques. The rose, once again, took centre stage and dominated fashions and designs, as what better way to justify the love of the natural than with the symbol for love itself?

I think that’s a good place to end today’s lesson; it’s such a universal topic and one that defines us today. For anyone who has ever worn a rose in their lapel to someone with a rose on a locket, the perpetuation of this symbol will go on for a long as we’re walking the earth and I know that I take a lot of comfort in the thought that passion and love defines us and will live forever.

Now go outside and smell the roses!

Previously on Symbolism Sunday:

The Greek Keys

The Urn

The Poppy

The Forget-Me-Not

The Belt/Buckle/Garter

The Upside-Down Torch

The Peacock




The Cypress

The Lantern

The Elephant

The Pelican

The Arrow and Quiver

The Knot

The Grape

The Daisy

The Oak

The Acanthus

Revisiting The Trumpet

The Harp


The Acorn

The Trumpet

The Male

The Woman

The Three Graces

Faith, Hope and Charity

The Clover

The Willow

The Column

The Hourglass

The Serpent

The Dove

The Dog

The Angel

The Marigold / Lily

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