The Symbology of Roses in Art

Much art of the past is full of symbolic meaning.  It can be fascinating to look deeply into the visual clues in a picture and find out what the artist was really trying to say or hint at.

Roses are flowers with a particularly rich history.  From very early times they have been loved and appreciated for their beauty and seductive perfume, and it is not surprising to find them associated with many of the ancient Greek gods as well as their later Roman counterparts.

Two classical women on a marble bench, one showering the other with rose petals.

In a Rose Garden by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836 - 1912) The roses in this classical setting seem to allude to fun, friendship, and with their ancient symbolism and connection to Aphrodite, possibly even love.

The colour of the red rose caused the ancients to link the flower with Eos (Aurora) the goddess of the Dawn.  This goddess, like Aphrodite (Venus) the goddess of Love, was notorious for her many romantic affairs.

Aurora stands at the Gates of Dawn with roses at her feet and in her hair

The Gates of Dawn by Herbert James Draper (1863-1920) This sensuous and beautiful goddess has roses entwined in her hair and lying at her feet, subtly alluding to her amorous nature.

Roses were an intrinsic part of the mythology surrounding Aphrodite.  She was said to have been born in a seashell, fully grown, washing up on the shore, and this was designated as the moment of the first blooming of the first ever roses.

Venus on a shell is blown to shore by Zephryr, the wind god. Roses swirl around them.

The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510). Pink roses surround Zephyr the wind god who has blown Venus to the shore.

Red roses, in particular, were closely associated with the goddess of Love and Beauty.  Red was the colour of Ares (Mars), Aphrodite’s lover, and she was said to have snagged her foot on the thorns of a white rose whilst running to the aid of her beloved Adonis who had been injured by a wild boar.  As the drops of her red blood fell upon the flower, it changed its colour.  Thus, did she create the first red rose.

Roses were also associated in the ancient mind with their form of Heaven, the beautiful underworld region of Elysium, the land of rest, peace and harmony for the most noble of souls.  It was frequently described as having meadows of red roses and being filled with their exquisite perfume. (1)

A woman with a lyre looks round from a field of roses.

Elysian Fields, 1903, by Carlos Schwabe (1866-1926).  Although the artist has depicted Elysium with the meadows of roses the ancient authors wrote about, he seems to have made them less than heavenly, for these roses are not red, but are brambly and full of sharp thorns. I pity the barefooted inhabitant here.  Perhaps some Symbolist irony is at play?

As the Roman world underwent its conversion to Christianity, the rose took on new symbolic meanings.  The white rose became a symbol of purity, and the Virgin Mary became known by such names as ‘The Rose of Heaven’ and ‘The Mystical Rose.’

The Madonna in a red dress holds a naked baby Christ on her lap. Behind her is a trellis with white roses.

Madonna of the Roses by Bernardino Luini (1480–1532) The white roses behind the Madonna and Child symbolise the Virgin’s purity and by extension the Virgin Birth.

Another epitaph, ‘The Sinless Rose Without Thorns’ made reference not only to her faultless state but was connected to the belief that in Paradise before the Fall of Adam and Eve roses had no thorns.

Adam and Eve are being chased out of the Garden of Eden by an Angel. The thornless rose is central and by the gates of their departure.

The Expulsion from Eden, 1900 by John Roddam Spencer Stanhope (1829-1908), a portrayal of the beautiful thornless roses in the Garden of Eden. The artist has created an idyllic paradise full of all kinds of flowers, but the roses take pride of place in the centre of the scene and also just at the doorway, a reminder of what Adam and Eve are losing.

During medieval times, the red rose – red being the colour of blood – served as a symbol of Christ, reminding man of his Saviour’s love and the suffering He endured on the Cross, and the thorns on roses were seen as evocative of the Crown of Thorns.

The three Marys have come to Christ's tomb and are greeted by an angel in front of a rosebush

The Three Marys with an Angel (aka Why seek ye the living among the dead? St Luke 24 v5) by John Roddam Spencer Stanhope (1829-1908). This time the artist has depicted the roses with plenty of thorns, for this is after the crucifixion of Christ, and thus alludes to His suffering.

In Victorian times, people enjoyed sending one another messages using the Language of Flowers. (2)  According to the species and colour of the flower, it could convey different meanings.  For example, the Dog Rose, which is often seen in paintings like Edward Burne-Jones’s ‘Love Among the Ruins,’ conveyed the meaning ‘Pleasure mixed with Pain’; the Moss Rose stood for ‘Voluptuous Love’; the Musk Rose, ‘Capricious Beauty’; and a Wreath of Roses symbolized ‘Beauty and Virtue Rewarded.’  Less welcome would be finding a gift of a Yellow Rose which indicated ‘Infidelity.’

A couple embrace amongst stone ruins. Dog roses are in flower near them.

Love Among the Ruins, c. 1873, by Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898) was inspired by Robert Browning's poem of the same name.  The ruins are the remains of a glorious but warlike ancient city, so the couple’s love here, their ‘love among the ruins,’ is very much symbolized by the Dog Rose and its association with ‘Pleasure mixed with Pain.’

Throughout the eons, the connection in our minds of red roses and beauty and love persists, as can be seen in our association of the gift of red roses with Valentine’s Day, Weddings and Anniversaries.  For us, they still equal romance and love.

On a golden velvet tablecloth is a golden vase in which are three red roses.

Red Roses in a Japanese Vase on a Gold Velvet Cloth c.1885-1890, by Martin Johnson Heade (1819-1904).  The velvety smoothness of a red rose is so sublime and romantic, and in this painting pairing them with a golden vase and a golden velvet cloth seems to emphasise the feeling of luxury and wellbeing a red rose evokes.

Long, long ago, an ancient poet wrote:

Zeus gave to Phoebus the prophetic laurel, Red Roses to the rosy Aphrodite… (3)

We may no longer build temples to the goddess of Love, nor worship her outwardly, but her association with the Red Rose, Love and Romance have become hardwired into our soul.

Venus with a golden halo holds an apple and an arrow. Behind her are roses, in front honeysuckle.

Venus Verticordia, 1868, in watercolour (my favourite version) by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882). This painting is full of symbolism - the roses, of course, in the background, plus the golden apple which was awarded to the goddess by Paris for her beauty (although she actually won it through bribery and intrigue) and which also symbolizes forbidden fruit; an arrow, alluding to Cupid and his power to make people fall in love; and golden butterflies, the symbol of Psyche, Cupid’s beloved wife and goddess of the Soul. The honeysuckle, having a strong, sweet fragrance, mixing with the deep perfume of the roses, both of which attract butterflies and insects, points to Venus’s legendary seductive qualities, which is why the title of this painting is Venus Verticordia – Turner of Hearts.




  • Tresidder, J. (2000) Symbols and Their Meanings, Duncan Baird Publishers, London 
  • Tresidder, J (ed). (2004) The Complete Dictionary of Symbols in Myth, Art and Literature, Duncan Baird Publishers, London  
  • Cobham Brewer, E. (1898)  Dictionary of Phrase & Fable, Henry Altemus Company, Philadelphia
  • General useful and in-depth reference for ancient Greek mythology :


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