07 September 2007

The Rose

The Mystic Rose (left), carpet art by Ed Flanagan
Painting by Vicente Herrero Heca

This is an article I wrote as a nonfiction book editor, as a sample for a proposed dictionary of symbolism (which was not published). It relates to Meher Baba because of the rose’s significance as an emblem of love for and from the Beloved.

What is more delightful than a rose? Associated with romance, erotic passion, and divine love, the rose enchants with its colorful beauty and sweet fragrance. In its unfolding circle of petals, poets have seen an open heart, an alluring smile, or the deepest mysteries of creation. From the innocent bud, through the fully opened blossom, to the withering and final decay, the rose calls to mind the cycle of human life and of death, rebirth, and eternity.

For the mystics the rose is the perfect embodiment of Divine Beauty, and the Persian poets expressed their intoxication with the rosy cheeks and budlike lips of the Beloved. The beloved rose inspires the ecstatic song of the nightingale in Persian lore — an allegory for the infinite love between the soul and God.

But the flower of love and beauty also symbolizes anguish and pain. The poet Rilke called the rose "pure contradiction." Surrounded by thorns, it expresses the ambivalences and torments of love. An emblem of fertility expressing the joy of creation, it is also a token of death and the sorrow of mortality. The fleeting life of the rose, which seems to last only so long as a smile, makes her an unfaithful beloved. Vain and coquettish, like the beloved rose of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's classic children's book, The Little Prince, she wounds the devoted lover with her indifference and self-absorption.

The Queen of Flowers, as Sappho named her, was associated from ancient times with women and sexual love. She was sacred to Aphrodite, and roses first appeared when the goddess emerged from the sea, a scene immortalized in Botticelli's painting The Birth of Venus. Aphrodite's son Eros dedicated this flower of his mother to Harpocrates, god of silence.

In Christianity, the rose was at first rejected for its association with paganism and sexual license, and the flower was once a badge of disgrace worn by prostitutes. But by the fifth and sixth centuries the rose began to appear in Christian legends, and it became identified with the Holy Trinity, Christ's five wounds, and his crown of thorns. The fallen petals of a red rose evoke the tears or drops of blood of martyred saints.

Roses are the special flower of the Blessed Virgin. They accompanied her in miraculous appearances at Guadalupe, Fatima, and Lipa. Mary's rose is a multifaceted symbol of grace, purity, and the perfect love of God. Legend has it that the first rosary was created by the Virgin from the prayers of a devoted young monk, which she plucked from his lips in the form of roses and fashioned into a garland.

Often the red rose is associated with the sun, or with fire, symbolizing the burning away of impurities, which frees the soul from worldly bonds. Legends of several different religious traditions describe a hero being cast into flames, which miraculously die down, the embers turning into roses.

The rose as an emblem of true love appears in folk ballads about lovers who, though parted in life, are united in death when roses growing from each of their graves intertwine and form a lover's knot.

In Dante's Divine Comedy, a gigantic white rose, lit by the sun, is a symbol of Paradise, expressing the fulfillment in eternity of all temporal things. In the psychology of C. G. Jung, the rose is a mandala, a circular form symbolizing the harmonious fulfillment of the individual personality through the integration of opposing elements and of the conscious and unconscious minds. In Islamic symbolism the rose manifests the primary divine qualities: Beauty (jamal) and Power (jalal), or Mercy and Wrath; as such, says the poet Rumi, the flower "speaks of the mystery of the Whole." In thus reconciling its contradictions, the rose becomes a bringer of spiritual unity through the divine power of love.


Dowden, Anne Ophelia, and Richard Thomson. Roses. New York: Odyssey Press, 1965.

Gordon, Jean. Pageant of the Rose. New York: Studio Publications/Thomas Y. Crowell, 1953.

Schimmel, Annemarie. ATwo-Colored Brocade: The Imagery of Persian Poetry. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992.

Seward, Barbara. The Symbolic Rose. Dallas: Spring Publications, 1989.


Anonymous said...

wonderful to see the rose from so many perspectives. thank you.

Anonymous said...

You have a very beautiful blog. Thank you. One of Baba's Masters, Tajuddin Baba called Baba "The Heavenly Rose". And Hazrat Babajan's original name was Golrokh, or Rose-cheeked. There is something mysterious about roses.

All quotes of Meher Baba © Avatar Meher Baba Perpetual Public Charitable Trust unless otherwise indicated. Writings by Kendra are © Kendra Crossen Burroughs unless otherwise noted.