Daniel Seghers (1590-1661)
Erasmus II Quellinus (1607-1678)
Flower Garland with Madonna and Child
c. 1644
oil on canvas
Vatican Pinacoteca, Inv. 40416

General Description

The central painting, a representation of Mother and Child, suggests traits of Rubenesque beauty. It is attributed to Erasmus II Quellinus of Antwerp. He was one of Daniel Seghers’ main collaborators. This type of religious paintings was usually executed by two painters: one would specialize in floral (Seghers) the other in figurative elements (Quellinus). Seghers was a member of the Society of Jesus. Fifty-three of his paintings have been identified. Some of them wound up in Rome, among them Garland of Flowers with Saint Ignatius, and ours. Seghers’ painstakingly detailed rendering of flowers, butterflies and insects as well as the porcelain-like finish are said to be influenced by Jan Brueghel dei Velluti. The colors of the flowers are luminous, and their hues almost transparent. A careful student of nature, he favors somewhat scattered arrangements to minimize repetition.

Mary’s Flowers

Flowers have an intriguing symbolic quality. Hundreds of flowers and herbs were named after Mary, highlighting events of her life or qualities of her person. In our painting, there is not only the rose, the most typical of Mary flowers, but also vines of ivy, carnations, campanula, narcissus, daffodil and anemone, hyacinth and pink oleander. If the carnation is symbol of divine love, so campanula stands for holy human love. Vines of ivy are a symbol of the humble beginnings of the Incarnation. In turn, narcissus, daffodil, and anemone are pointing to the dramatic climax of Christ’s Passion.

Symbols of New Life

Mary’s flowers are related to the celebration of Spring. During the Middle Ages, Mary’s name was associated to flowers in order to celebrate the awakening of new life, especially on May 1 and during the whole month of May. The expression “bringing in the May” is well known. It meant carrying flowering branches in procession on the first day of May.  Our Lady was honored as the mother of all growing and living things. As one poet wrote, “You are a living paradise of gloriously colored flowers.” (Konrad von Würzburg) People saw Mary’s attributes in the herbs and flowers growing around them and named many plants after her. Some of these comparisons are found in books of the Old Testament, especially the Book Sirach, Wisdom, Proverbs, and the Song of Songs. Roses and lilies became Mary’s flowers par excellence. They are mentioned in the Song of Songs: “I am the Rose of Sharon, the lily of the valleys.” (2:1)

Rose and Lily

Early legends tell that when Mary’s tomb was opened, it was empty. Mary was no longer there, but she left behind a harvest of roses and lilies. Roses and lilies became Mary’s flowers. The two flowers highlight Mary’s relation to God.  She is open and receptive to the word of God; she is pure and transparent to his presence (lily). But she is also fiercely loving and passionate in her attachment to God (rose). The lily was associated with the Annunciation, the Feast of Mary’s receptiveness, and lilies are often depicted in scenes of Gabriel’s visit to Mary. She is also the rose in which the divine word became flesh (Dante), enclosing heaven and earth in her loving womb. The rose symbolism has many facets and many legends. Roses sprang up as gifts for the Infant in the manger, and they blossomed where the Holy Family rested on the flight to Egypt. Considered the most perfect of flowers, the rose becomes the symbol of the Queen of Heaven. Mary is the mystical rose because of her ardent love of God. Mary is depicted sitting in a rose garden to signify that she is enclosed by the love of God. White roses symbolize Mary’s joys, red and yellow ones her sorrows and glories.


Flowers on Mary’s Way

Flowers designate not only Mary’s virtues; they also punctuate the major stations of her life.


Violet (Viola odorata)

Our Lady’s Modesty. The humbly glowing purple flower became known as Our Lady’s modesty. It is said to have blossomed when Mary said her Yes to the angel Gabriel.



Columbine (Aquilegia Vulgaris)

Our Lady’s Shoes. The flowers of the columbine are associated with Mary’s shoes because of their shape. According to legend, they sprang up where Mary’s feet tread the ground on her way to visit Elizabeth.


Thistle (Carduus Benedictus)

Our Lady’s Thistle. There are many flowers associated with the Nativity, e.g., the Star of Bethlehem, the Christmas Rose, and Our Lady’s Bedstraw. The thistle, because of the white veins of its leaves, is associated with Mary’s milk. Drops of milk fell on them when Mary was nursing her baby.


Snowdrop (Galanthus Nivalis)

Candlemas Bells, also called flower of purification. They were called Candlemas Bells after the ceremony of blessing the candles on February 2.  The alabaster white snowdrop reminds us of the Feast of Mary’s purification. It bloomed on this day which is now primarily the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord.

Flight into Egypt

Juniper (Juniperis)

Our Lady’s Shelter. The Madonna’s Juniper Bush is said to have opened its branches to shelter the Holy Family when Herod’s soldiers drew near on the flight into Egypt (Sicilian legend). Other bushes are said to have played the same role (Rosemary, Clematis).

The Years of Nazareth

Strawberry (Fragaria Vesca)

Fruitfulness of Mary. The strawberry is a symbol of Mary’s virginity and maternity because of its unusual characteristic of bringing forth flower (virginity) and fruit (maternity) at the same time. Legend tells that Mary would go berry-hunting with Jesus and John on June 24 (St. John the Baptist’s Day).


Our Lady’s Thimble (Campanula Rotundifolia)

The flowers of the harebell resemble tiny thimbles. They are associated with Mary’s working hands. She made Jesus’ clothes, and earned a living for the family weaving and sewing.

Mary at the Cross

Lily of the Valley (Convallaria Majalis)

Mary’s Tears. It is told that when Mary stood at the foot of the Cross, she wept bitterly at the sight of her Son. The tears fell to the ground and turned into the fragrant little flowers we call lilies of the valley.

For more information:

Consult the exhibit catalog: The Mother of God:  Art Celebrates Mary,  pp. 88-90.

There are many more flowers and flower legends associated with the name and person of Mary. See for more information:  Vincenzina Krymow (e.a.), Mary’s Flowers. Gardens, Legends and Meditations. St. Anthony Messenger Press, Cincinnati, Ohio 2002.

Consult The Mary Page: campus.udayton.edu/mary/resources/flowers.html 

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