- During the Middle Ages, the rose seen as the queen of flowers, symbol of the Virgin Mary, representing romance, religion, healing. The rose symbolizes the Virgin Mary (white roses in Paradise are said to have blushed red when she kissed them). In the early Middle Ages, roses were frowned upon because they were associated with the excesses of pagan Rome. Romans wore wreaths of roses while feasting to cool their minds, guarding against the drunken betrayal of secrets. Thus the rose had been a symbol of discretion.
The red rose became a symbol of martyrdom, due to its color. When St. Francis of Assisi received the stigmata, his blood was said to have become roses when it fell upon the ground. See also Pieta image at Cloisters: Jesus' blood is like a rose. (?)
- Rose windows: the idea was brought back by the Crusaders. The shape of the rose is round and centered, like a madala, symbolizes perfection and Heaven. Some rose windows have five petals (the "dog rose"). The shape also resembles a wheel, recalling the flaming wheels of the book of Daniel.
- Rose image used for personal decoration and symbolism. e.g. the funeral image of the Count of Urgel (Spain), at the Cloisters. His armor is dotted with rosettes (which also have a practical function, being designed to deflect a lance).
Rosettes were often used in heraldry. They are frequently associated with the seventh son of a noble family who, not being permitted to use the family emblem, was often given a personal emblem containing a rose.
- Rose was extremely important in Middle Ages. They were believed to purify. Rose petals were strewn on the floor and used to freshen clothes. In times of plague, people carried posies for protection (c.f. "Ring around the rosie"). The rose was considered a remedy for many maladies. The dog rose is so named because its root was said to cure rabies. The apothecary rose (rose gallica) is a small, sweet rose that was used in perfume and food. Since its scent remains when the petals have dried, it is most likely this rose that was strewn on floors.
The white rose, a symbol of practicality, was used in various ways. Its buds were made into jellies and tarts, its leaves used to treat vision problems, thyme soaked in rose vinegar was used to soothe agitation. Monasteries, the hospitals of the Middle Ages, were the chief centers of rose cultivation.
- Roses in the unicorn tapestries, in which the unicorn symbolizes the bridegroom. The unicorn, tamed by a virgin, is no longer fierce. So too, God became gentle through the Virgin Mary.
- Re: stained glass image of St. Dorothea at the Cloisters: the depiction contains a vase of red roses. Dorothea was condemned to death by the Emperor Diocletian, for refusing to get married. On her way to execution, she was taunted by the Emperor's secretary Theophilus, who asked her to send him flowers from Heaven. As she died, a child came to him with a basket of fresh roses (it was midwinter). They were roses without thorns, a symbol of man without sin (white roses in Paradise were said to have blushed red when Eve kissed them). Theophilus converted on the spot and was later martyred himself.
- The thornless rose was also the symbol of the Virgin Mary. Our Lady is called the Mystical Rose. The golden rose stands for the glory of the Virgin Mary. The Order of the Golden Rose, founded by Pope Leo VIII, was originally founded as a means of honoring virtuous women, and later included men.
The peony (not a true rose) was prized as the "rose without thorns". It too symbolizes the Virgin Mary, and was used as a remedy for nightmares.
Another plant associated with the rose and with Mary is rosemary (according to this lecturer; another art historian at the Cloisters denied a connection with Mary, stating that the name of the herb is derived from rosa maris, rose of the sea). Rosemary has tiny, blue flowers. There is a legend that they were originally white, but became blue when the Virgin cast her cloak over them. Rosemary, a favorite medieval herb, represents constancy and fidelity.
- A rose bush with thorns is a symbol of flawed and mortal humanity. A tapestry at the Cloisters depicts a stag (youth) hunted by the hounds of old age: heaviness, heat, cold, ague, suffering. The stag is depicted leaping toward a rose bush (with thorns).
- The rosary is related to the rose (see the intricately carved German rosary bead at the Cloisters). The rosary chaplet presented to St. Dominic was scented with roses. Monks' rosaries may originally have been made with hardened rose petals.
Notes by Sara Frear