Erasmus II Quellinus (1607-1678)
Flower Garland with Madonna and Child
oil on canvas
Vatican Pinacoteca, Inv. 40416
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.
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
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
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
For more information:
Consult the exhibit catalog:
Mother of God: Art Celebrates Mary, pp.
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.
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