Sunday, May 14, 2006


As in Hera, one of the legends tells that the lily sprung from the tears shed by Eve as she left the Garden of Eden. Another legend relates to the tears of the Virgin at the foot of the Cross. Lilium Candidum has been the symbol of purity, chastity and virtue and was accordingly readily adopted by the Church to associate the Virgin Mary's sanctity with events of special significance.

Detail, Madonna Lily

Artists for centuries have pictured the angel Gabriel coming to the Virgin Mary with a spray of lilies in his hand, to announce that she is to be the mother of the Christ child.

Ecce Ancilla Domini, Dante Gabriel Rosseti. 1850

Jesus used "the lilies of the field" as the object of one of his better known lessons. ( Matthew 6:28 , Luke 12:27)

Its white color symbolizing the purity of the Savior and the joy of the resurrection while its trumpet shape suggests the angel Gabriel"s trumpet call to Rebirth and resurrection.

Another version suggests that the Roman Catholic Church adopted the Madonna lily to represent and honor the Virgin because its pure white exterior symbolized her purity while its gold sprinkled interior represents her supreme value and worth.

Madonna with baby Christ with lilies in the background

One legend claims that lilies were originally yellow. One day, as the Virgin Mary was walking to the temple to worship, she bent down to pick one of the beautiful blossoms. At her touch, the flower instantly changed to the pure white we recognize today. In her honor, Joseph, who was walking with her, was also touched by this miracle, for his staff began to grow a bouquet of the white lilies.

The Assumption of the Virgin, Francesco Botticini 1475-6

Another legend tells of the disciple Thomas who was away at the time of Mary's death, consistent with his reputation as a doubter, one who had to see in order to believe, he demanded that her tomb be opened so that he could view her body as proof that she had really died. Reluctantly, the other disciples obeyed his request, and to everyone's amazement, they found her tomb filled with lilies and roses, the flowers traditionally dedicated to her. As they stood in wonder, a beautiful Madonna Lily appeared at Thomas's feet and when he looked up he saw the Virgin floating above him.

The Annunciation, Sandro Boticelli c.1500

A less common lily, the red lily from the Caucasus which has a tendency to droop its head, was also believed to originally be pure white like the Madonna Lily. As Christ walked through the garden of Gethsemane on his way to pray, all the flowers bowed in reverence in his presence. The Lily knew she was exquisitely beautiful with a powerful fragrance, and she wanted to be noticed by Christ as he walked through the garden. So she did not bow as he passed her. To her surprise and embarrassment, he stopped and gazed directly at her. She suddenly became ashamed of her pride and conceit, blushed a deep red and lowered her head. To this day is how the red lily presents itself.

Venerable Bede

It is said that the Venerable Bede (673-735) who first describes the Madonna lily as a symbol of the Virgin, the white representing the purity of her body, the golden anthers the brightness of her soul.

Alcuin of York

Alcuin (735-804), the English scholar-priest recruited by Charlemagne, and founder of the palace school at Aix, adorned his cell with roses and Madonna lilies. He was a correspondent of Benedict of Aniane, who on Charlemagne's instructions, issued an order itemizing plants to be grown in gardens on all the Crown lands-thus bridging the gardening practices of the ancient world and those of the Middle Ages.


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