Roses have long stood as symbols with complex and diverse meanings throughout history. From their connections to love and romance to their representation of politics, religion, art and more, roses carry deep significance across cultures. In this article, we’ll explore the varied symbolism behind roses.
Roses as Symbols of Love
Perhaps most famously, red roses stand for romantic love and enduring passion. The red rose has become the quintessential symbol for romantic affection, commonly given on Valentine’s Day, anniversaries and as gestures of admiration. This association dates back centuries, with the red rose appearing in romantic myths, literature and art from cultures all around the world.
Cleopatra, for instance, famously had the floors of her palace covered in rose petals to seduce Mark Antony. Red roses also came to symbolize the goddess Venus in Roman mythology. Today, they remain the go-to flower for expressing romantic intentions, conveying the message “I love you.”
Other rose colors also carry romantic connotations, often signifying different nuances of love (see table). Pink roses convey gentler, more graceful affection, while orange roses are tied to desire and passion. Lavender roses can mean enchantment and love at first sight.
Roses in Religion and Folklore
Roses frequently appear as symbolic flowers in myths, legends and religious texts spanning different faiths. In ancient Greek and Roman myths, roses were associated with Aphrodite/Venus, the goddess of love. The bloom is also connected to the Virgin Mary in Christian theology.
According to legend, roses originally were only white in color until they became stained by the blood of Christ during the crucifixion. Roses thus took on new meaning as symbols of Christ’s sacrifice and resurrection. Additionally, Catholic and Anglican rosary beads are made from rose petals pressed into beads.
In pre-modern folklore, roses were believed to offer protective powers. Rose petals were sometimes strewn around the outside of homes to ward off evil, and wreaths of roses were hung on doors as talismans against harm. Roses were also thought to hold medicinal benefits in ancient civilizations.
Roses in Politics
Roses have long factored into political imagery and messaging as well. The red rose is a longtime symbol of socialism and the labor movement, used by socialist and social democratic political parties around the world. This association grew in the late 19th century, when the rose became connected to revolutionary socialist movements.
The white rose, meanwhile, was adopted as an emblem of nonviolent resistance to Nazism in Germany. Members of the peaceful resistance group White Rose used graffiti of white roses to secretly spread their message and encourage uprising against Hitler during World War II.
Other political groups and movements have also embraced the rose as a motif. The Orange Rose symbolizes social justice and stands as an LGBTQ pride symbol. Yellow roses are tied to liberalism in some contexts.
Roses in Art and Culture
Roses frequently appear in visual arts, photography, film and literature. They have been depicted in countless paintings, including the iconic Roses (1890) by Vincent van Gogh. Frida Kahlo famously used floral imagery, often painting herself adorned with or surrounded by roses as in Self Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird (1940).
In photography, roses are a common artistic subject, allowing for colorful, textured and detailed shots. Roses also embellish movie and television scenes to add a sense of beauty or romance. And in literary works across genres, the rose has served as an evocative symbol and metaphor dating back to ancient times.
Other Cultural Meanings
Beyond their clearly defined symbolism in realms like politics and religion, roses also bear more abstract cultural meanings. Roses often feature at weddings, where they represent new beginnings. Bouquets, floral arrangements and rose petals hold significance across wedding ceremonies and celebrations.
More broadly, roses stand as symbols of balance, promise, hope and beauty throughout the arts, literature and everyday cultural traditions. Their thorns represent defense, contrasting with the allure of their blossoms. Red roses in particular are ingrained in our shared language as icons of beauty and enchantment.
With roots in ancient myths, legends, religious texts and folklore, roses have accrued multilayered symbolic meanings across cultures and history. While most strongly tied to love and romance, roses also variously represent politics, religion, art, medicine, protection, sacrifice and more. Their rich symbolism continues to evolve. But enduringly, roses communicate beauty, hope, balance and love in its many forms.