Saint Clare (detail), Giotto, 1325Credit: Wikimedia Commons / {{PD-Art}} (PD-old-100)‎

The Heavenly Role of Lilies
in Christianity and Mythology 

The symbolic nature of lilies is apparent in many of the world's religious traditions, none more so than in Christianity. Due to their abiding influence on human culture, lilies have come to represent a higher order in Nature – symbolizing the qualities of innocence and chastity, and the ideal of man's spiritual quest for a pure soul.

Lilies in Christian Religion

From the belief that the first lily originated from Eve's tears as she left the Garden of Eden, to later associations with the resurrected soul and divine femininity, the white lily encapsulates the meaning of Christianity more than any other flower on Earth.

"In the early days of Christianity, it was dedicated by the Church to the Madonna (hence its popular name), probably because its delicate whiteness was considered a symbol of purity. It is employed on the 2nd July, in connection with the celebration of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin." (Grieve, p. 482)

In its historic ties with Christian religion, the white lily was planted for the purposes of decorating altars and church ceremonies, and was also connected with the Easter tradition. The white lily was "a sign of the resurrection and so used in church decorations at Easter. It is said that after Mary died, three days later her tomb was visited and found empty, apart from lilies and roses." (McIntyre, p. 148)

While the white lily (Lilium candidum) continues to symbolize the Virgin Mary in Christianity, its role at Easter has subsided. Similar in appearance to the Madonna Lily, a number of hybrid lilies have, instead, been bred from the Japanese species Lilium longiflorum and are hugely popular in North America. Marketed as Easter Lilies, they are mass-cultivated in the USA for sale at Easter every year.

Cross with trumpet liliesCredit: wordspeller

A Funerary Flower

Lilies are spiritually significant flowers that can be found on many headstones and burial plots in public graveyards. They are the most common flower in funerary tradition, and symbolize restored innocence at the time of death

They are often combined with other religious elements, such as angels and crosses, like the one shown above, upon which a sheath of trumpet lilies gently rests. 

This pairing of symbols – a cross with lilies – symbolizes the physical and divine realities of human existence.

While lilies portray ideals of devotion and purity of heart, the cross reflects the strength of one's faith and belief in God – in life and at the 'passing' (or death) of one's physical body. 

The cross, on its own, is a poignant reminder of Christ's own sacrifice and is representative of divine masculinity. Lilies, themselves, equate to the love and compassion of the Madonna, and divine femininity. Together, they are a powerful symbol of God's love for humanity.

Fresco of Lilium sp. in Santorini from 1500BCCredit: TAP-Service, Greece / Wikimedia Commons / {{PD-Art}} (PD-old-100)

Lilies in Mythology

At the beginning of the Bronze Age, an ancient people named the Minoans began to evolve. They were the first civilization in Europe, and lived and thrived on the island of Crete from 3,000BC to approximately 1100BC. A highly artistic culture, the Minoans developed pottery and fresco painting into skilled art forms.

Scarlet martagon lilies  commonly featured in landscape scenes painted on the walls of their homes and palaces. Rendered in bold monochromatic tones, the long stems and short, distinct leaves, flower buds and pollen stalks of Lilium chalcedonicum (above) are clearly recognizable. Native to Greece, the blooms of this lily were also painted as a necklace worn by the Prince of Lilies in a magnificent, large fresco in the Palace of Knossos, c. 1550BC.

No flower so lively sets forth the frailty of man's life as the lily. – S. Basil

Onwards to ancient Greek civilization, and a rich and dynamic mythology was fully emerging. At this time in history, the white lily (or leirion) was a known and revered flower of Hera. As Queen of Heaven, Hera was recognized as the goddess of the moon, and also of marriage. She was the wife of Zeus, and daughter to Cronus and Rhea. The word hera itself means 'lady' and is the feminine form of the Greek word heros, which means 'hero'.

In Roman mythology, the white lily was associated with Juno – the equivalent of Hera, the Greek goddess. Juno was believed to be the most significant of all goddesses in ancient Rome, and was the goddess of women, fertility and youthfulness. She was the wife of Jupiter (a sky god, comparative with Zeus), and the daughter of Saturn. The calendar month of June is named in her honor.

The Origin of the Milky Way (detail), Jacopo Tintoretto, c. 1575Credit: Wikimedia Commons / {{PD-Art}} (Yorck Project)‎

In ancient Roman times, the white lily was given the name 'Juno's Rose'. This expression originated from the Roman myth of how the lily and the starry universe were first created. Quoted from Gerard's Herball, the following passage tells of this mythical story in the old English writing style of John Gerard . . .

"The Lilly is called Latine, Rosa Junonis, or Juno's Rose, because as it is reported it came up of her milke that fell upon the ground. But the Poets feign, That Hercules, who Jupiter had by Alcumena, was put to Juno's breasts whilest shee was asleepe; and after the sucking there fell away aboundance of milk, and that one part was split in the heavens, and the other upon the earth; and that of this sprang the Lilly, and of the other the circle in the heavens called Lacteus Circulus, or the Milky Way." (Gerard, p. 43)

The story bears striking resemblance to the Greek myth that similarly describes Hercules, as a baby, being fed from the breast of Hera as she slept, in the event that he might adopt God-like powers. Italian artist, Tintoretto (1515-1594) painted The Origin of the Milky Way (above) from the perspective of the ancient Greek myth. Peacocks also feature in this detailed work, and these birds, like the lily, were associated with both Hera and Juno, despite their separate mythologies

Annunciation (detail), Leonardo da Vinci, c. 1472-1475(110644)Credit: Wikimedia Commons / {{PD-Art}} (Yorck Project)‎

Final Words

The lily is a flower of myth and religion, spirit and creation, and will always live on in the images of the artists who painted them and told their stories for the world to see. "To the ancients, lilies symbolized fertility, purity and innocence. Their perfect form was a manifestation of the spirit of creation and satisfied our ancestors' innate longing for symmetry and harmony." (McIntyre, p. 148) 

Next article: History of Lilies