It was because of such associations that Christianity was initially opposed to the use of the rose as a symbol for the Virgin Mary. “The early Church fathers,” Richard Webster explains, “loathed the rose, because they associated it with the lust and debauchery they saw in the Roman Empire”. Ultimately, however, the rose prevailed, and was declared “the most perfect of flowers,” according to Teresa McLean in her book Medieval English Gardens, “one which had been without thorns when it grew in Paradise, until the disobedience of Adam and Eve…” Consequently, Mary came to be represented by a white and thornless rose. Nicholas Hilliard’s famous ‘Pelican’ portrait of Elizabeth I (c 1573-75), in which the queen appears beneath a thornless rose, illustrates the rose’s newfound Christian associations with chastity.
That said, some pagan links persisted in the new religion. According to the Greek writer Pausanias, the rose obtained its red colour from the blood of Aphrodite (Venus), who cut her feet on the thorns of a rosebush while rushing to her dying lover, Adonis. These ties to blood and death were later incorporated in the rose as a symbol for Christ. “[Christ’s] five bleeding wounds,” writes McLean, “were the five petals of the red rose, his crown of thorns the thorns of the rose bush”.
Over time, the rose’s associations with love, femininity, purity and death were further developed in literature and art, as well as botany. In the 13th Century Le Roman de la Rose (The Romance of the Rose), a tale “replete with puns centred on rosy de-flowerings, pricking, scattering seed, and seizing young buds,” Faiers says, “the rose is both the object of the narrator’s desire and a symbol for female sexuality”. The term ‘deflower’, however, first appeared in A Directory for Midwives, a book by the 17th-Century English botanist Nicholas Culpeper, who, writes De La Haye, “[likened] the fleshy knobs around the hymen to a half-blown rose”. Such comparisons, including those made by the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus (regarding flowers in general) in the 18th Century, eventually led to the rose being once again the object of scorn – this time, in Victorian England. “It was reviled by people who were offended by its references to sexuality,” de la Haye says.