In beauty, shape and scent, the rose is outstanding and hence has become the most commonly used floral symbol in the West. Broadly speaking the rose corresponds status-wise to the Lotus in Asia, both being very close to the Wheel in symbolic terms. The commonest aspect of this floral symbolism is that of manifestation, rising from the primeval waters to blossom above them. This aspect is, in any case, familiar in India where triparasundari, the Cosmic Rose, is used as a point of comparison with the Divine Mother’s beauty. It denotes the attainment of perfection, unsullied fulfillment. As we shall see, roses symbolize the chalice of life, the soul, heart and love. They may be contemplated in the same way as a Mandala and regarded as mystic centres.
In Christian iconography, the rose may be either the chalice into which Christ’s blood flowed, or the transfiguration of those drops of blood or, again, the symbol of Christ’s wounds. A Rosicrusian symbol depicts five roses, one at the centre and one on each of the four arms of the Cross. This conjures images of the Grail or else of the ‘Heavenly Rose’ of the Redemption. In the Rosicrusian context, it should be observed that its emblem sets a rose in the very centre of the Cross, that is, where the Sacred Heart, Christ’s heart, is located. This symbol is the same as the Rosa Candida in Dante’s Divine Comedy; and that in turn conjures Our Lady’s title, ‘Mystic Rose’, in litanies of the Blessed Virgin; and that of the medieval poem the Roman de la Rose. Angelus Silesius takes the rose for an image of the soul, as well as of Christ who leaves his mark upon it. The Golden Rose, which the Pope uses once to bless on the fourth Sunday in Lent, was a symbol of his spiritual power and teaching’ (DEVA), but doubtless a symbol of ressurrection and of immortality as well.
Gothic rose-windows and the seaman’s compass-rose mark the way in which the symbolism of the rose is transformed into that of the wheel.
Finally, a special case should be observed, that of Sa’dī of Shiraz, for whome, as a Muslim mystic, the rose-garden is a garden of contemplation. ‘I shall pluck roses from the garden, but I am drunk with the scent of the rose-bush.’ Christian mystics would certainly not reject such language as a commentary upon the Rose of Sharon in the Song of Solomon.
Because of their relationship with blood, roses seem often to have been regarded as symbols of mystical rebirth: ‘On battlefields where a number of heroes have been slain, roses or eglantines will grow;…roses and anemones [grew up] from [the blood] of Adonis when [the young god was] dying’ (ELIT p.302). ‘Human life’, Mircea Eliade writes, ‘must be completely lived out if it is to exhaust all its potentialities of creation and expression; if it is interrupted suddenly, by violent death, it will tend to extend itself in some other form: plant, fruit, flower’ (ibid. pp 301-2).
Abd al Qadir Jīlānī compares scars with roses and attributes a mystic meaning to them.
According to Portal, roses and the colour pink became the symbol of rebirth because of the semantic kinship between the Latin words rosa (rose) and ros, meaning ‘Dew’ or ‘Rain’. ‘The flower and its colour were primary symbols of rebirth and initiation into the Mysteries…In the Golden Ass, Apuleius regained his human shape by eating a garland of roses given to him by the high priest of Isis.’ The rose-bush, he adds, ‘is an image of the born-again, just as dew is a symbol of rebirth’ (PORS pp. 218,220) This interpretation receives confirmation from the frequent justaposition in Scripture of Green with roses. Thus Ecclesiasticus 24: 14 has: ‘I was exalted…as a rose-plant in Jericho, as a fair olive tree in a pleasant field.’ The olive was sacred to Athene, who was born on Rhodes, the Island of Roses – and this would suggest the secrets of initiation – and rose-bushes were sacred to Aphrodite as well as to the grey-eyed goddess. The Ancient Greeks knew the rose as a white flower, but when Aphrodite’s lover Adonis was mortally wounded, the goddess, running to his help, pricked herself on a rose-thorn and her blood tinged the flowers sacred to her.
It was because they were a regeneration symbol that, in Classical antiquity, the custom was established of placing roses upon graves. ‘The Ancients called this ceremony the Rosalia. Every year during the month of May they offered dishes os roses to the spirits of the dead’ (PORS p.222). Hecate, goddess of the Underworld, was sometimes depicted wearing on her head a garland of five-leafed roses. Five, which follows the number of fulfillment four, is the acknowledged mark of the beginning of a fresh cycle.
According to Bede, in the seventh century the Holy Sepulchre was painted in a mixture of White and Red. These two elements of the colour rose-pink, with all their traditional symbolic properties, recur at all levels, in the sacred and the profane, in the distinctions drawn between ideas of passion and of purity and those of transcendent love and divine wisdom. The Palais de l’Honneur states that ‘over the coats-of-arms of nuns is set a garland comprising white rose branches with leaves, flowers and thorns, denoting the chastity which the bearers have preserved amid all life’s thorns and mortifications.’
Roses became a symbol of love and, more strongly still, of the offerings made by a love which was pure:
Roses took the place of Egyptian lotus or Greek narcissus as the flowers of love. These were not the frivolous flowers of which Catullus wrote…but Celtic roses, proud with life and, though equipped with thorns, fraught with a gentle symbolism. This is the symbolism of the Roman de la Rose, in which Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meung created the mysterious garden of love and chivalry, of the Mystic Rose of the litanies of Our Lady, of the Golden Roses which the Popes sent to princesses worthy of them and, lastly, of that vast symbolic rose which Beatrice showed her faithful lover when he reached the last circle of Paradise, a flower simultaneously rose and rose-window. (GHYN 2: p.41)
Dante was to compare heavenly love with the centre of the rose. ‘Into the yellow of the rose/Perennial, which, in bright expansiveness,/Lays forth its gradual blooming, redolent/Of praises to the never-wintering sun…Beatrice led me’ (Paradiso 30: 124-7)
Whether white or red, roses were the favourite flowers of alchemists, who often entitled their treatises The Rosary of the Philosophers. White roses, ‘like lilies, were linked to the white stone, the objective of the first stage of the Work, while the red rose was associated with the red stone, the objective of the second stage. Most of these roses have seven petals, each petal relating either to a metal or to an operation in the Work’ (VANA p.27).
A blue rose was to become the symbol of the impossible.
(A Dictionary of Symbols, Penguin Reference, 1996)