Unfolding the Rose: History and Meaning
08 Jan 2020

Unfolding the Rose: History and Meaning

Love. Beauty. Chastity. Compassion. Attraction. Mortality. Wrapped into the layered petals of the rose flower are meanings, stories, and symbology that altogether make up a rich and complex history for this powerful yet delicate flower. Here are some of the most powerful roles the rose has been cast in society.

Love.  Beauty.  Chastity.  Compassion.  Attraction.  Mortality.

Coiled into the layered petals of the rose flower are meanings, stories, and symbology that altogether make up a rich and complex history for this powerful yet delicate flower.

Perhaps no other floral species has inspired so much attraction and attention. So much worship and obsession.

To poets, monarchs, religious figures, and inhabitants of the ancient world, the rose has been everything from a potent aphrodisiac to a symbol of mortality, to an emblem of chastity and sacrifice.

Through all, the rose has continued to be a symbol of love and compassion. But its colorful and fascinating history shows us just how varied and complex the rose truly is as a flower.  

Here are the various meanings and symbology that make up the rose.

Throughout the ages, this flower has been known best...

For its potent, seductive powers

Long before the rose graced the windows of churches or the heraldic banners of Kings and Queens, the rose’s purpose was strongly centered around its powers of allure. Its story took root deep within the ancient world, starting with the Egyptians.

For the Ancient Egyptians, the Rose was an evocative plant. A potent healer and aphrodisiac. The flower would be boiled down to its oily residue and used as a beauty enriching balm. Its scent permeated through everything. Petals would be scattered over tables, floors, and beds. Its essence used to sweeten the breath, enrich foods, cosmetics, and perfumes. 

While the Egyptians were the first to recognize the flower’s carnal properties, they definitely wouldn’t be the last to appreciate its appeal. The Victorians would, years later, revive the rose again, as a token of sexual love.

Rose petals on table

Yet the rose was beginning to take on greater meaning for the Ancient Egyptians.

This flower became inextricably linked with the Egyptian Goddess of Love, Isis. Her temples in Thebes would be decorated with motifs of the striking flower. In this way, the rose would take on an entirely new symbolic meaning. That of pure love. A trend that would echo as the Greeks and Romans began to embrace the enchanting plant...

“For the rose, ho, the rose! is the grace of the earth,

Is the light of the plants that are growing upon it!” - Sapho, Song of the Rose

As a celebration of steadfast love 

Botticelli’s renowned 15th-century painting The Birth of Venus depicts Rome’s Goddess of Love being showered with pale pink roses by Zephyrus. Just as Isis came to be associated with the rose, so did Venus share a sacred affinity with the flower.

It is in Greece, however, where the rose would blossom into its full, symbolic potential. And, would, in fact, conquer death, if only in myth. 

Aphrodite had fallen deeply in love with Adonis. Legend has it, that when Adonis was severely wounded by a wild boar attack she rushed to his aid. As she ran, she was pricked by thorns. But when she bled, beautiful red roses began to blossom around her. Zeus, a witness to the scene, was moved by the tenderness of her love. Thus, he allowed Adonis to return for a few months every year to the living. 

The rose had evolved from potent aphrodisiac into an emblem of love and compassion. But, not too far away, it was also turning into a fragile reminder of our fatality.

As a reminder of mortality

The rose was a complex flower for the Romans. A dichotomy of life and death. While admired for its powers of love and beauty, it was also venerated as a symbol of the world beyond. 

The Rosalia, a feast to remember the dead by, featured a prominent role for the rose. Roses would be offered to the Mani, the souls of the departed. These rites would eventually evolve into the Christian Pentecost. Rose petals would rain down upon the faithful as wads of hay were set alight. The fire would dance in the form of rose-shaped flames. A sign of the Holy Spirit’s descent. 

Girl laying on floor with roses

As a keeper of the clandestine

The Romans had another, more discreet use for the rose. 

Customarily, a rose would be hung overhead in confidential meetings. A reminder that nothing to be discussed should be divulged outside the room. Known as meetings sub rosa or ‘under the rose’ the practice later became popular during Henry VIII’s reign. Many a rose have been carved into ceilings where covert meetings took place.

From the emblem of the departed to the keeper of secrets, the rose was becoming a richly layered and profound symbol. 

And, it was only going to take on more purpose in the ages to come...

“There is no rose of such virtue 

As is the rose that bare Jesu;

Alleluia.” - verse 1420

As a symbol of purity and chastity

The rose would fully unfurl into its symbolic power with the advent of Christianity.

The rose’s significance as an emblem of pure, unwavering love was conveyed through the Virgin Mary. Considered a ‘rose without thorns,’ or rather, free of original sin, Mary’s image became almost interchangeable with that of the iconic flower. 

The rose’s connection to Mary soon became expressed through everything. Praised through the medieval devotional verse and alluded to in the Gothic architecture of medieval Europe. Roses bloomed in stained-glass windows of medieval churches and Mary would often be depicted, in medieval art, surrounded by a rose garden (akin to Eden). The roses traditional five petals would even come to represent the five joys of Mary’s life - the Annunciation, Nativity, Resurrection, Ascension, and Assumption. 

Roses sitting atop an open book

Then, as an expression of worldly compassion

Closely related to its role of pure love in Christianity is the part the rose played in Christ’s Passion. Christ is often depicted with rose thorn stems twined around his head. An expression of his sacrifice and martyrdom that has been, in many ways, universally embraced.

This idea, that love doesn’t only exist in romantic form - it’s also an agent of positive change and compassion in the world - is a powerful one. It’s something we have all experienced and carry with us throughout our lives. The rose is an expression of the universal love and compassion we should embrace every single day in our lives, whether that be to someone we are close with or a complete stranger.

The rose as a heraldic device

Time and time again, the rose has been adopted in heraldry. It has been branded onto coats of arms, liveries and rendered a heraldic badge. A reminder that with great power comes great responsibility and grace. But also, at times, the challenge of conflict.

The rose has enjoyed a long history as the insignia of stately institutions. Among these, were the liveries of the houses of York and Lancaster in England. The house of York was represented by a white rose, while that of Lancaster, a red one. Thus, the more than 30-year civil war which broke out between these houses in 1455 would later be known as the War of the Roses. The reference first alluded to in such works as Shakespeare’s Henry VI Part I, was more formerly coined after 1829 in Sir Walter Scott’s Anne of Geierstein.

The end of the War of the Roses and the marriage between Henry VII and Elizabeth of York which ensued would give rise to the famed red and white Tudor Rose. Eventually becoming ‘the flower of England,’ it proved a symbol of unity and change for a bitterly divided nation.  

“And here I prophesy: this brawl today[…]

Shall send, between the Red Rose and the White,

A thousand souls to death and deadly night.” - Shakespeare, Henry VI Part I Act II, Scene IV

Bunch of roses

And, then, as a canny strategic move...

The notion of a rose as an emblem of all virginal and pure has withstood the test of time. It is a powerful idea that caught the attention of one monarch, in particular: Elizabeth the 1st of England. 

Understanding the rose’s influence as a symbol of steadfast and pure devotion, the perceptive monarch adopted the flower as a vessel for her identity. In so doing, she folded both courtly and holy love into a queenly identity that would link state and heaven.

As a muse to poets 

The rose was, once again, embraced fervently by the Victorians who worshipped the flower as the ultimate symbol of beauty. During this time, a new appreciation for flower meaning was developing. This was characterized by the creation of a complex language around flowers and their varied meanings. The red rose became an icon to poets, musicians, and painters, all enthralled by its beauty.

Among these was Scottish poet Robert Burns who penned the beloved A Red, Red Rose in 1794:

“O, my luve is like a red, red rose,

That’s newly sprung in June.”

The rose featured in poems about love from the earnest to the more frenzied, such as Edmund Waller’s famed Go, Lovely Rose about his unrequited love for Lady Dorothy Sidney. Musician Roger Quilter also set many renowned rose poems to music.

Red rose with ribbon

Finally, as the symbol of love, we all recognize today

Today, the red rose is a tried and true symbol of romantic love. Delivered neatly with a card and box of chocolates, the bouquet of red roses has become the fetching yet somewhat corny Valentine’s Day gift most of us pick up last minute on our way home from work. 

Still, they bring joy to the faces of those that receive them as a gift. Perhaps that’s down to their rich and profound history. Or, maybe it’s just because these flowers look so elegant arranged in a classic vase at the center of the kitchen table.

Two hands holding a rose

Red roses are a beautiful and timeless gift for that incredibly special person. And, at Talsam, we’re big believers in beautiful and timeless gestures of love.


But we’ve actually gone a step further. We’ve created a gift that will not only look beautiful but bring you closer together with the one you love. How did we do this?

Read our story.

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