On December 26, the “Second Day of Christmas,” I offered my observation that for many Americans, the day after Christmas ― the twenty-sixth of December ― is the end of the Christmas season.
Though we are not a religious family, we enjoy many Christmas traditions. I resolved to enjoy all the Twelve Days of Christmas, from Christmas Day until Epiphany on January 6th, and to do so in part by writing a bit each day about some aspect of the Christmas season. All the essays may be read here.
Today, for the Ninth Day of Christmas, I’ll offer a bit about the old Christian symbolism, the Marian Rose, concluding with an anonymous 14th-century poem, “There is no Rose of Such Virtue.” Let me be clear – I don’t believe any of this, but I find it all interesting from a historical, literary, etymological, and sociological perspective. As a classical singer and program annotator, I spend a lot of time researching, writing about, and singing sacred texts and music, including old legends such as this. It’s interesting.
In the Middle Ages and Renaissance, when literature, music, and liturgy were replete with countless examples of widely-understood symbolism, perhaps no symbol held so dear a place in every person’s heart as the Rose, the Queen of flowers, that was used to represente the Virgin Mary, Mother of Christ. A garden of symbolic references has grown up around the image of the Rose:
A Rose without thorns was the favored symbol for the Virgin Mary, in contrast to a thorned rose bush, which was believed to represent “flawed and mortal humanity.” A golden rose was used to signify the “glory of the Virgin Mary.”A well-known anonymous 14th century verse, “There is no rose of such vertu,” presents the rose entire. The Latin phrases — Alleluia, Res miranda, Pares forma, Gaudeamus, Transeamus —are offered as commentary on the narrative.
Because of its color, the red rose became the symbol of martyrdom. According to legend, when Saint Francis of Assisi received the stigmata, the blood that dropped from his body is said to have turned to roses as it struck the ground.
Perhaps because it was used to represent the untouched Virgin, the rose itself was believed used to freshen and purify. Rose petals were strewn on floors and in clothing to cover unpleasant smells. The so-called “apothecary rose” which was especially fragrant even when dried, was most likely the rose used for this purpose.
Roses were also believed to hold healing powers. During outbreaks of plague, people carried roses and other flowers in hopes that they would thus be protected from infection “Dog roses” earned their name because it was believed that their roots were an effective cure for rabies.
In countless churches and cathedrals across the world, the perfection of the Rose is represented by large, intricate stained glass rose windows, many of them enriched with additional images and symbols.
Here’s the original text, followed by a modern English “translation,” followed by some explanatory notes.
There is no rose of such vertu
As is the rose that bare Jesu.
For in this rose conteinèd was
Heaven and earth in litel space,
By that rose we may well see
There be one God in persons three,
Pares forma .
The aungels sungen the shepherds to:
Gloria in excelsis Deo.
Leave we all this werldly mirth,
And follow we this joyful birth.
There is no rose of virtue
As is the rose that bore Jesus.
Praise ye the Lord.
Within this rose was contained
Heaven and earth in a little space.
Through this birth, we can see
that the one God is of three beings.
They are equal.
The angels sang to the shepherds:
Glory to God in the highest.
Let us rejoice.
Let us leave worldly amusements
And follow this joyful birth by turning to spiritual things.
Let us go hence.
rose = Mary and/or her womb
vertu = power, holiness
rose = Mary’s womb
Heaven and earth = the child Jesus, the Son of God, and all his promise
one God in persons three = the divine nature is made of three beings: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Pares forma = Of equal form
For Further Reading: