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Roses in art and collections we care for

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Image of Sally-Anne Huxtable
Sally-Anne HuxtableFormer head curator, National Trust
Red and white roses in a still life by Ambrosius Bosschaert at Anglesey Abbey, Cambridgeshire
'Still Life of Flowers in a Vase' by Ambrosius Bosschaert, the elder (1600–21) at Anglesey Abbey, Cambridgeshire | © National Trust Images

Throughout history roses have been steeped in symbolism, history and meaning, which you can uncover in the art and collections at the places in our care. Former head curator Dr Sally-Anne Huxtable explains how these delicate and fragrant blooms have been employed to represent love, war, beauty, and purity.

The mythological rose

In ancient Greek and Roman cultures, pink roses symbolised their respective goddesses of love, Aphrodite and Venus. As in the miniature copy of Titian’s The Venus of Urbino at Ham House, Surrey, the Roman goddess is often depicted holding these blooms, the petals of which she would scatter over the earth on her travels through the sky in her chariot flown by doves.

A miniature painting of a reclining Venus of Urbino at Ham House, Surrey
'The Venus of Urbino (after Titian)', enamel on copper, 18th century, at Ham House, Surrey | © National Trust Images

The mystical rose

One of the ways in which the early Church supplanted pagan religions, such as that of the Romans, was by adapting and repurposing their symbols. In a religion that originally had no female deity, it was not long before the Virgin Mary’s role was elevated to the status of a goddess figure, like Venus and Aphrodite.

One way of doing this was to adopt pagan symbols as part of Marian symbolism and myth. The erotic roses of Venus were transubstantiated into a symbol of Mary’s eternal purity as ‘the rose without thorns’ and of her divine nature as the ‘Rosa Mystica’ (Mystical Rose) with the thorns representing her suffering and grief at Christ’s crucifixion.

Later mystical roses

From the Middle Ages onwards, roses symbolised the love, purity and grief of the Virgin in religious art and literature. The theme was revived by the pre-Raphaelite, Aesthetic and Symbolist painters in the second half of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Madonna and Child before a Rose Hedge by Pseudo-Pier Francesco Fiorentino
'Madonna and Child before a Rose Hedge' by Pseudo-Pier Francesco Fiorentino, oil on canvas, c.1450–c.1499, at Belton House, Lincolnshire | © National Trust Images

Mystical representation

The Virgin Mary’s role was elevated to the status of a goddess figure, with the help of roses.

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The romantic rose

The symbol of the rose was also central to one of the most influential and important secular poems of the Middle Ages. The Roman de la Rose is a 13th-century allegorical French poem of courtly love, started by Guillaume de Lorris and finished by another author, Jean de Meun. The poem was also adapted by Geoffrey Chaucer (and probably two other anonymous authors) as the Romaunt of the Rose, c.1360–70.

The poem takes the form of an allegorical dream vision, a pilgrim’s quest for perfect love which he eventually achieves in the form of plucking a rose from a bush inside the ‘Garden of Pleasure’. In order to enter the walled garden, he must overcome all manner of obstacles. As well as having obvious sexual connotations, the poem is also a manual on the medieval art of romantic love.

The Tudor rose

In the 15th century, roses took on very different connotations during the series of English civil wars for the English throne between the Royal Houses of York and Lancaster, known as the Wars of the Roses (1455–87).

A unifying rose

The House of York was represented by the white rose, and the House of Lancaster by the ‘red’ Apothecary’s rose (in the early modern world, the colour pink was classed as ‘red').

At the conclusion of the wars, with the formation of the House of Tudor uniting both factions, the famous Tudor Rose – with white petals at the centre and red around the outside – was created as a symbol of the new regime.

The Eglantine rose

Possibly following the example of the Tudors, the formidable Bess of Hardwick (1527–1608) chose the wild, Sweet Briar, or Eglantine, rose (Rosa rubiginosa) as part of her Hardwick coat of arms.

Bess of Hardwick's rose can be seen in the incredible 1568 inlaid Aeglentyne (Eglantine) table at Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire, probably commissioned by Bess to commemorate her marriage to George Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury in 1567.

Consort of Henry VII, Elizabeth of York wearing the White Rose of York
'Elizabeth of York', 16th century, at Lacock, Wiltshire | © National Trust Images

Tudor roses

This posthumous 1575 portrait of Henry VII’s consort, Elizabeth of York, at Lacock Abbey, Wiltshire, shows the Queen wearing both the red and white roses together as a symbol of the union of Lancaster and York, rather than the Tudor rose symbol her husband created.

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The symbolic rose

In the 19th century an intricate language of flowers was created and used in the arts and in popular culture. In symbolic language, roses could take on multiple meanings, with colour further complicating the matter, so that, for instance, yellow roses came to represent jealousy.

The neo-classicist rose

Artist Frederic, Lord Leighton, depicts Lady Adelaide Chetwynd-Talbot, Countess Brownlow as a modern Venus in white drapery, clutching a bouquet of pink roses.

The sentimental rose

In late 19th-century popular culture, roses were firmly established as common symbols of Valentine's Day. A somewhat peculiar card in the collection at Mr Straws House, Nottinghamshire, shows a gnome delivering a rose.

The rose as a symbol of love in all its forms has endured to the present our contemporary culture prizes the ideal of the quest for romantic love devised by medieval literature, such as 'Roman de la Rose', more than almost anything.

Lady Adelaide Chetwynd-Talbot by Sir Frederic Leighton
'Lady Adelaide Chetwynd-Talbot, Countess Brownlow (1844–1917)' oil on canvas, 1879–1880, at Ashridge Estate, Hertfordshire | © National Trust Images/John Hammond

Neo-classist roses

Artist Frederic, Lord Leighton, depicts Lady Adelaide Chetwynd-Talbot, Countess Brownlow standing and gazing to the left, wearing a long white dress and holding a bouquet of red roses.

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Roses and pomanders

Pomanders were typically worn around the neck or suspended from the waist. Most pomanders have hinged compartments which open like segments of an orange; these were used to hold different fragrant herbs or flowers. The pomander in the collection at Dudmaston, Shropshire, is decorated with 'famille rose' enamels depicting chrysanthemums and lotuses.

See a pomander

Landscape mural of Italian seaport showing a harbour scene in the dining room by Rex Whistler at Plas Newydd House & Gardens, Anglesey

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