It all began with the word rosarian. A week ago, I was flipping through the pages of my latest purchase, when there it was, in the short biographical description of the author. Among other things, it seemed the novelist was an amateur rosarian. I had never encountered the word before, but I assumed it was a (prettier) synonym of “rose-grower”. Other concerns soon drew my attention elsewhere, but the word lingered at the back of my mind (I have a pronounced weakness for anything connected with roses), and this morning, I decided to look it up. I had a bit of trouble, for it was in neither of my dictionaries (it’s obviously time to invest in new ones) nor in the Cambridge online dictionary. Eventually, however, I found a definition in the 2011 Random House Dictionary, and it turned out my earlier assumption was correct. Moreover, it turns out that I, too, am a rosarian!
rosarian: n. a person who is fond of, develops, or cultivates roses. Origin: 1860-65.
When I typed the word into the search engine, I inevitably came up with a whole lot of links to websites dedicated to the queen of flowers. Among these, the Rosa mundi, a fresh pink and white candy-striped rose that has apparently been around since the twelfth century, featured prominently. And this is where the real search began – for the phrase rosa mundi teased and tugged at my memory. Though I was never a proficient Latin scholar (and isn’t that an understatement!), it was nevertheless easily translated as “rose of the world”. I seemed to recall it being connected with several poems by Yeats, and possibly also to religion, but more than that I could not remember.
More than an hour later, I was still in the dark, and ready to tear my hair out in frustration. Countless advertisements had enthusiastically invited me to come and discover their beautiful shrub roses and succumb to their unbeatable discounts (at any other time, I would have complied readily enough, but right now, I was a woman with a mission and not to be deterred). I had come across a reference to a now defunct music group of the same name. But nothing could I find remotely related to etymology.
Sheer stubbornness eventually obtained the desired results. It seems that long before the rose became associated with Venus/Aphrodite, it was the emblem of the goddess Isis. The priestesses of the Isian cult used roses extensively in their rites and statues of the goddess often depicted her holding a rose in one hand, while garlands and bouquets of flowers, including roses, were scattered by participants in Isian festivals.
One of the most important of these festivals was the Isidis Navigatum, or blessing of the fleets. During the Greco-Roman period, Isis became the patroness of sailors and ships. It is thought that the tradition of adding carved female figureheads to the prows of ships dates back to this period and to the wish to invoke the goddess’s protection before setting out to sea. The Isidis Navigatum was celebrated in all the ports of Ancient Greece, in the harbours of Rome, on the shores of Greco-Roman Egypt, and throughout the Roman Empire, all the way up to the Seine (the Parisii, the tribe of Gauls living in the actual region of Paris, were wealthy and powerful merchants and ship-owners devoted to the cult of Isis, as attested by the discovery in the eighteenth century of a statue of the goddess in the church of St Germain-des-Prés; the ship which still appears at the centre of the city’s coat of arms is also a direct reference to these ancient navigators). Thus the phrase rosa mundi could stem from the wide-spread cult of Isis and all its attendant associations with navigation and journeys.
However, it is with the advent of Christianity that the rosa mundi takes on its full meaning. Associated with Greco-Roman excesses, the rose is mentioned nowhere in the Bible – the rose of Sharon evoked in the Song of Solomon is in fact a kind of crocus. The first Christian use of the rose is in scenes of the next world, notably in Dante’s description of Paradise, in which the poet’s guide, Beatrice, invites him to gaze not on her face, but on the beauty of Mary, Mother of God, who is compared to a rose. Paradise is depicted as a garden blossoming under the radiance of Christ – an allegory that has since become standard.
The rose was then used as a symbol of Christ and His sacrifice, its five petals corresponding to the five wounds of Christ upon the cross. At the same time, it was associated with the Virgin Mary: while the lily, symbolizing purity, featured in Annunciation scenes, the rose, symbolizing beauty and perfection, appeared in many depictions of the Madonna and Child, as well as in Marian gardens. The early thirteenth century statue of Mary adorning the left-hand-side portal on the main façade of Notre Dame de Paris holds three roses in her hand instead of a sceptre.
Most importantly, the rose became a symbol of the universe: like the role played by the lotus in Asia, the multiple petals of the rose became an image of the cosmos expanding in the light of God. This imagery was taken up in the seventeenth century by the Confraternity of the Rosicrucians (hence the link with Yeats in my memory), who chose as their emblem the Cross, its branches pointing in the direction of the four points of the compass, and at its centre, the rose, as a symbol of the universe. From Isis to Mary, from ocean voyages to mediaeval gardens, from Egyptian temples to Notre Dame de Paris, and from a symbol of Paradise to a symbol of the entire universe, the Rosa mundi has indeed deserved its name of “rose of all the world”.
© Florence Berlioz 2011