On Tuesday we celebrate the Feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary. It is a fitting memorial to keep in Advent, for we see in God’s preservation of Our Lady from sin as the bearer of His Son a pointer to our own need to prepare our homes and hearts for Christ’s nativity. I want to reflect on the Immaculate Conception by exploring another of Our Lady’s titles, that of Rosa Mystica or ‘Mystical Rose’, which first appears in the Litany of Loreto, of 1587. For while her connection to roses is a common part of Catholic iconography and devotion – most obviously in the Holy Rosary – it is perhaps less clear why she is the ‘Mystical’ rose. The title is one most commonly heard during Advent and Christmas if you look out for it – particularly if you are familiar with medieval Christmas carols and artwork. To understand this topic, we must investigate the Christian symbolism of the rose flower and then explore the imagery used by Isaiah in his prophecy of the Root of Jesse. Finally, St John Henry Newman brings us full circle and offers a meditation which beautifully links the mystical rose with the Immaculate Conception.
The use of the rose as a symbol in Christianity drew on Greco-Roman culture which associated the flower with beauty, love and new life. In the Early Church, roses signified both paradise (joy) and martyrdom (suffering), and were thus also associated with mystery. Later understandings used roses to point to God’s charity and Christ’s passion, but especially to Our Lady. St Ambrose in the third century believed that the roses in the Garden of Eden only developed their thorns after the Fall, attaching to them a symbol of Original Sin. Hence in the Medieval Church, Mary is often described as the ‘Rose without thorns’ or ‘the Rose of Paradise’ evoking the Church’s belief in her state of Original Grace and identifying her as the New Eve. A related strand of imagery originates with a fifth-century writer called Sedulius Caelius who describes Mary as a ‘rose among thorns’ pointing to her purity within a sinful world. St Brigid reiterates this comparison in the fourteenth century, writing that;
“The Virgin may suitably be called a blooming rose. Just as the gentle rose is placed among thorns, so this gentle Virgin was surrounded by sorrow.”
This iconography came to the fore in the middle ages with the heightening of Marian devotions. Particularly during periods of plague, Our Lady was turned to as the protective Mother of Mercy (mater misericordia), and the symbol of a rose of purity and sweet fragrance was thus a poignant counter to many peoples’ bodily as well as spiritual infirmity. The view that roses were regal amongst flowers, and beliefs about their medicinal qualities arising from use in monastic gardens, additionally complemented Christian belief that Mary was an intercessor and queen in heaven, bringing Christians safely before Christ the judge. Aside from the institution of the Rosary by St Dominic in this period, one of the clearest signs of the growing connection between Our Lady and the rose flower is in the development of the rose window in Gothic cathedrals, many of which were being dramatically expanded and rededicated in Mary’s honour at this time.
Figure 1: The North rose window at Chartres Cathedral, c.1235, showing the Madonna and Child at the centre surrounded by the Kings of Israel.
St Bernard of Clairvaux adds some further depth to our understanding of the symbolism:
Eve was a thorn, wounding, bringing death to all; in Mary we see a rose, soothing everybody's hurts, giving the destiny of salvation back to all. Mary was a rose, white for maidenhood, red for love; white in body, red in soul; white in her seeking after virtue, red in treading down vice; white in cleansing her affections, red in mortifying her flesh; white in her love of God, red in compassion for her neighbour.
Here the colours offer two-fold imagery united within the same symbolic plant. A similar mixture of colour and symbol remains present today in the liturgical colour of Rose, worn during Mass for Gaudete Sunday (3rd Sunday in Advent) and Laetare Sunday (4th Sunday in Lent). Both celebrate the approaching joy at the end of a penitential season – the violet vestments seen in the rest of these seasons briefly lightened with the celebratory white of Christmas and Easter. Laetare Sunday likewise presents joy in expectation of the Resurrection mingled with the Blood of the Passion – this time suggesting the mixture of white with the red vestments of Good Friday. Similarly, Our Lady shares in the joys and sufferings of her Son – she is as well both Cause of Our Joy and Queen of Martyrs. The concept of joy with the anticipation of suffering is a consistent theme both in the Gospel narratives and in Christian art. The Jesuit priest and poet, Gerard Manley-Hopkins, in the nineteenth century touched on this union in his poetic reflection on the Mystical Rose:
What was the colour of that blossom bright? — White to begin with, immaculate white. But what a wild flush on the flakes of it stood When the rose ran in crimsonings down the cross-wood! In the gardens of God, in the daylight divine I shall worship His wounds with thee, mother of mine.
It is this mysterious unity of apparent contradictions in Our Lady – such as intensity of joy and suffering – that seems to be at the heart of the title Rosa Mystica. We find in her several mysterious unions, in particular that of her Virgin Motherhood, but also that she is mother to a child who is also her Creator and saviour. When our rose symbolism was arising in the middle ages, however, there is further mystery which is brought to the fore – namely that Mary’s womb was the location of the Incarnation, that the uniting of divinity and humanity in the person of Jesus Christ was an event which took place in a physical space carefully prepared for Him. We find this captured in a fifteenth century English carol: “There is no rose of such virtue, as is the rose that bare Jesu, for in this rose contained was, heaven and earth in little space”. Our Lady was the first receptacle of this great mystery and as we celebrate in next week’s feast, this “little space” was specially prepared by God to be the new Ark of the Covenant. The rose, then, is mystical because she unites in herself virginity and motherhood and carries within her the Child who unites God and Man.
Additionally, to achieve the Incarnation, we might say that God grafted his divinity to us through the humanity of Our Lady. Grafting is a method of propagating roses by which a cutting of a budding rose is inserted into the root of another variety to create a new plant. This brings us to the central scriptural image behind the title of Our Lady as Mystical Rose, which comes from Isaiah (11.1): “And there shall come forth a rod out of the root of Jesse, and a flower shall rise up out of his root.” For Catholic interpreters it is understood that the rod or shoot (virga in Latin) is Our Lady and the flower Our Lord, fulfilling the prophetic understanding that God would bring salvation to the Jews through the line of David. Belief that Mary, as well as Joseph, descended from the Kings of Israel has been traditionally asserted through the artistic typology called the Jesse Tree, developed in medieval Germany. Paintings and windows on this theme typically show Jesse reclining at the base with the shoots rising up to Mary, showing that Our Lord’s human kingship and nobility came not just through the adoption of Joseph but also the flesh of the Virgin Mary. Medieval scholars also applied to Isaiah’s imagery passages from chapter fourteen of Sirach describing Holy Wisdom taking his place amongst descendants of Jacob, particularly verse eleven: “I grew tall like a palm tree in En-gedi, and like rose-bushes in Jericho.” The lineage of the Kingdom of Israel was thus understood to have broken forth anew in the Messiah as an ancient rose bush might bud forth with flower – a prophecy fulfilled in Our Lady and Our Lord.
Figure 2: Carved panel showing the Jesse Tree, made for Cardinal Beaton at St Andrews Castle, 1550s.
This symbolism is celebrated in the fifteenth century German carol: “Es ist ein Ros entsprungen” (Lo, How a Rose is Blooming). The English versions of the hymn have mostly been set by Protestant translators who refocus it to cast Our Lord as the titular Rose from the root of Jesse. However, the German text itself is unambiguous, the second verse translating “The Rose I have in mind, of which Isaiah spoke, is Mary the pure”. While Mary is the titular rose, by comparison, I think rather beautifully, the hymn speaks of das Blümlein – the flowerlet or infant flower – brought forth by Mary, capturing the frailty and innocence of the Christchild born into obscurity and a world of darkness. So, the root of Jesse is the kingly line of Israel, and Mary the fruitful rose bush which emerges from this stock, bringing forth the blossom which is Christ. A third verse added to the hymn in the nineteenth century reminds us that the fragrance of this flower will fill the air with sweetness and with its gleam dispel the darkness of a world of sin.
Now, finally, there is a more complex angle given to the rose metaphor, when we remember that Christ is both the new flower and the original Root of Jesse itself. This points us on to the mystery of the Immaculate Conception of Our Lady, wherein we know that Mary’s son, himself God, pre-emptively applied the merits of redemption to his mother in order to preserve her from Original Sin.
This is the theme taken up by St John Henry Newman in his meditations on the Litany of Loretto. On the Mystical Rose, Newman reflects on how the title relates to the Immaculate Conception and to Our Lady’s upbringing. He notes that flowers symbolise the graces of God, and thus that the Garden itself, here the nurturing of the Virgin’s childhood, must also be a place of goodness for it to bring forth these flowers: “By a garden is meant mystically a place of spiritual repose, stillness, peace, refreshment and delight”. Thus he argues that by God’s design Mary was sheltered and nursed to become the Mother of Christ in the home of St Joachim and St Anne, then as a virgin in the Temple, before becoming espoused to St Joseph:
In those blessed gardens, as they may be called, she lived by herself, continually visited by the dew of God’s grace, and growing up a more and more heavenly flower, till at the end of that period she was meet for the inhabitation in her of the Most Holy. This was the outcome of the Immaculate Conception. Excepting her, the fairest rose in the paradise of God has had upon it blight, and has had the risk of canker-worm and locust. All but Mary; she from the first was perfect in her sweetness and her beautifulness, and at length when the angel Gabriel had to come to her he found her “full of grace” which had from her good use of it, accumulated in her from the first moment of her being.
Newman’s meaning here is not that the Immaculate Conception was a process of sanctification, but that the good nurturing of Our Lady’s holy childhood ensured that the state of original grace given to her by God was preserved unblemished. She thus remained a spotless rose.
Figure 3: The Hortus Conclusus, by the Upper Rhenish Master, early 1400s.
In Christian art this is traditionally articulated in depictions of the hortus conclusus or enclosed garden, a term taken from the Song of Solomon (4:12) to refer to both Our Lady’s virginity and her protection from sin. In such artwork, a fenced or walled off garden forms the setting for the Annunciation or for scenes of the Madonna and Child surrounded by virgin saints. Roses and other flowers emblematic of Our Lady – such as lilies – are depicted within to acknowledge the nurturing in her of many graces. In one variant of the typology, the Archangel Gabriel is shown with dogs and horn, chasing a unicorn – a symbol of the Incarnation – to the Virgin. This imagery heavily informs the Stirling Hunt for the Unicorn tapestries, woven in imitation of late-medieval style for the restoration of Stirling Castle in 2002. For Newman, then, the mystical rose is closely linked to the garden itself, in which environment the rose is nurtured to the perfection of spiritual gifts. For, as he continues:
Mary is the most beautiful flower that ever was seen in the spiritual world. It is by the power of God's grace that from this barren and desolate earth there have ever sprung up at all flowers of holiness and glory. And Mary is the Queen of them. She is the Queen of spiritual flowers; and therefore she is called the Rose, for the rose is fitly called of all flowers the most beautiful.
There is nothing here of the timidity with which Catholics sometimes feel the need to defend Our Lady and her titles, but rather an unabashed celebration of her beauty.
Advent, I think, is a time to enjoy the beautiful poetic imagery and symbolism which the Church’s tradition gives us. This beauty permeates the cycle of liturgical reading for the season, especially the prophecies of Isaiah, and this title of Our Lady offers further fruit for meditation. Bishop Robert Morlino offers us some helpful conclusions on the subject:
God, who is Himself perfect in beauty, offers to us an image of beauty in humanity. He gives us a woman truly beautiful in her loving charity, an image of creation returned to beauty, and an image of how we are called to love and adore the Lord, in the beauty of our thanksgiving in the liturgy. The Mystical Rose provides for us an example of how we might imitate Christ in these three aspects: beauty in charity, beauty in creation, and beauty in the liturgy.
He continues by observing that as roses were planted in ancient vineyards to give tell tale signs of oncoming disease, so the health of our devotions to the Mystical Rose, Our Lady, will show us the strength of our relationship with her Son. Here, there are plentiful opportunities in Advent, with the feasts of the Immaculate Conception and Our Lady of Guadalupe (look out for more roses here!) just around the corner, besides the clear relevance of the Mystical Rose to that great Marian prayer, the Holy Rosary. But another liturgical opportunity I would recommend is to learn the traditional antiphon to Our Lady sung during Advent and Christmastide, the Alma Redemptoris Mater (Kindly Mother of the Redeemer). This text, among others, reminds us of the mysteries of the Mystical Rose – that she is both virgin and mother, and her son both offspring and creator, God and man. In such liturgical ways we can observe the Advent season with Mary, that her prayers may open our hearts to the coming of her Son, and join with Gerard Manley Hopkins who desires in his poem that: “I shall keep time with thee, Mother of mine”.
Our Lady, Rosa Mystica, pray for us.
 Bishop Robert Morlino, “Mary, the Mystical Rose, is link to God” Diocese of Madison Catholic Herald (Thurs 10th May 2012), see https://madisoncatholicherald.org/bishopscolumns/3209-bishop-column.html  J.H. Newman, Meditations and Devotions of the Late Cardinal Newman (London, 1916), 20-22.  Newman (1916), 66.  Morlino, “Mary, the Mystical Rose”.
Rory Lamb | Edinburgh