Flowers and their meanings: Beauty in Our Catholic Altars

(Originally titled “Beautifying God’s House” by Barbara Day and Helen Abbenzeller)

(Spring, 2007)

Flowers for the Altar

A biographer of the French priest Blessed Peter Favre once stated that when Adam and Eve were punished for their fall, God did not allow three things to change: the stars, flowers and the eyes of a child. Flowers are one of God’s loveliest creations and there are frequent references to them in Scripture alluding to their beauty. Christ said: “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they labor not, neither do they spin. But I say to you, that not even Solomon in all his glory was arrayed as one of these” (Matt. 6: 28-29). It is a joyful privilege to adorn the altar with flowers, God’s own handiwork.

Ecclesiastical legislation governs the use of floral arrangements on the altar during feasts and liturgical seasons, and there is evidence in the writings of St. Jerome that flowers embellished altars since the earliest ages of the Church.1 It is not permitted to place flowers on the altar on the Sundays and ferias of Advent and Lent, with the exceptions of Gaudete and Laetare Sundays, the midpoints of those seasons. Flowers may be used during the Season of Septuagesima— the three Sundays between Epiphany and Lent. No flowers may be placed on the altar during Requiem Masses. They are also not allowed during certain ceremonies, such as the blessing of candles on Candlemas Day (February 2), although flowers may be placed on the altar during the Mass of the Purification of Mary that follows.

What is the Symbolism behind the different kinds of flowers?

Many of the common flowers used in church are replete with symbolism:
Carnation: The red carnation is the symbol of pure love: the pink carnation the symbol of marriage.
Daisy: In the 15th century, the sweet and simple daisy came to be used as a symbol of the innocence of the Christ Child.
Fern: This forest plant symbolizes solitary humility, frankness, and sincerity.
Hyacinth: A symbol of Christian prudence, peace of mind, and the desire for heaven.
Holly: Regarded as a symbol of Christ’s Crown of Thorns and Passion.
Iris: This flower represents the Blessed Virgin. Its name, meaning “sword lily,” is an allusion to the sorrow of Our Lady at the Passion.
Lily: The lily is a symbol of purity and has become the flower of the Virgin. A lily among thorns is a symbol of the Immaculate Conception, and the lily is also associated with the Annunciation. In addition, the lily is a symbol of chastity, so St. Joseph and many other saints appear with this flower.
Pansy: This familiar flower symbolizes remembrance and meditation.
Poinsettia: This flower is used at Christmas to represent Christ’s love for us. A Mexican legend refers to it as the “Christmas Rose.”
Rose: The red rose is a symbol of martyrdom and the white rose of purity. The Virgin is often called “the Rose without thorns.” A garland of roses is an allusion to the rosary, and wreaths of roses symbolize heavenly joy.
Violet: This lovely little flower typifies humility and chastity.

Kaz Andrew from Edmonton,Alberta, Canada, CC BY-SA 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

May arrangements are an annual favorite among both young and old as they beautify Mary’s altar with fresh flowers that are so plentiful in the spring. What Catholic child did not bring Our Lady flowers during May or take part in the May Crowning or Procession? It is an ancient tradition to embellish with flowers the litter used to carry statues during processions. Catholics in Europe and elsewhere would often construct ornate paths made of flower petals for processions of the Blessed Sacrament on Holy Thursday and Corpus Christi.

It is a real art to arrange church flowers and many pious souls perform this laborious, time-consuming task out of their love of God and Mary. The arrangements must not be extravagant, but dignified, and symmetry and color coordination are essential. Few parishioners realize the time and effort employed in watering the arrangements and keeping them looking fresh. Preparing for special events like Christmas, Easter, Forty Hours Devotion, First Communion, weddings, etc., take even more time, yet it is an honor and part of our Catholic heritage.

Liturgical themes often inspire one to choose flowers for a particular day or Feast. Red is proper for the month of July and the Feast of the Precious Blood in particular. It reminds us of the price paid by Our Lord for opening the gates of Heaven for us. Red flowers are also used for Pentecost. A bouquet of white flowers for the Feast of the Annunciation and other feasts of Mary are appropriate because they remind us of Our Lady’s holiness and purity. (Little blue ribbons tied on white carnations with baby’s breath and greens make an attractive bouquet for the Feasts of the Immaculate Conception, Miraculous Medal and Our Lady of Lourdes.

It is easy to take for granted so much of what goes on behind the scenes in making a parish “work.” This includes sacristan duties training the altar servers, cleaning, mending and yes, even flower arranging. It is a privilege to be a part of that team.

What is the Symbolism of the Catholic Altar Cloth?

Research suggests that the first altar cloth was used at the Last Supper. One wonders if the Blessed Virgin Mary, herself, prepared that cloth for such a momentous event. Since the early ages of the Church there have been scores of holy women, nuns, and even queens, who lovingly laundered, starched and laboriously ironed the pure white linen that adorned the altars of churches, cathedrals and basilicas all over the world. As the church grew and expanded, women in the parishes devotedly assumed this sacred task.

Linen, woven from the fibers of the flax plant, has been used throughout history for altar cloths. This was likely in memory of the linen cloths that were used for the burial of Jesus. Over and above the elegance and delicate beauty of the white cloth, linen possesses great absorbent qualities, a safeguard if the chalice were to be accidentally spilled during the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

An ornate main cloth lies on the top of the altar and gracefully drapes over the sides, barely touching the floor on each end. Two additional linen cloths lie beneath the main cloth. Beneath these cloths lies the marble altar stone that is set in the center of the altar and contains relics of two martyrs.

There is much symbolism and fruitful subject for meditation attached to the altar and altar cloths as described by Richard Stapper, S.T.D.:

“According to the rite of ordaining subdeacons (cf. Pontif Rom.), the altar is a symbol of Christ, while the altar cloths signify the faithful, the members of Christ’s mystical Body, the Church. There are three altar cloths, for the Church is threefold: triumphant, suffering and militant. The removal of the altar cloths on Holy Thursday (the stripping of the altar) has been referred symbolically to the flight of the Apostles who made up the Church at that time, as well as to the distribution of Christ’s clothes at the crucifixion (Durandus). Since the material of the altar cloths is prepared from hemp or flax with considerable labor, those cloths also symbolize the virtues which should adorn the faithful as living members of Christ’s mystical Body.”2  

Turris Davidica, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

At the start of every Low Mass, a heavily starched square linen cloth called the corporal is unfolded on top of the altar in front of the tabernacle. The priest places the large host and chalice upon this linen and also a ciborium, if additional hosts need to be consecrated during Mass. These hosts will be changed into the Body of Christ (Corpus Christi) at the Consecration of the Mass. (Corporal is derived from the Latin corpus, meaning body.)

Zelie Martin, the mother of St. Therese of Lisieux, used to make by hand the fine, intricate lace that was used to adorn the front of the top altar cloth at their parish church. Various symbols are embroidered into the lace that adorns altar cloths. Some of these are: IHS—an abbreviation of the Greek word Jesus. The Chi Rho (P) are Greek letters for the word Christ. The Alpha and Omega (A Ω) are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet, symbolizing that God always was and always will be. Other symbols include: lilies (purity), gold crowns (symbolizing the Kingship of Christ), a Paschal Lamb (Christ as Victim), a Host and Chalice or grapes and wheat (the Holy Eucharist), candles (Christ, the Light of the World) and doves (the Holy Ghost).


Footnotes

1 Ep. 60, ad Heliod.
2 Catholic Liturgies, pp. 226-227, St. Anthony Guild Press, Paterson, NJ, 1935.

References

Audsley, W. & G., Handbook of Christian Symbolism, London: Day & Son, 1865.
Child, Heather, Christian Symbols, Ancient and Modern: a Handbook for Students, New York: Scribner, 1971.
Ferguson, George, Signs & Symbols in Christian Art, New York: Oxford University Press, 1954.

–Taken from the Reign of Mary Quarterly Magazine, Issue 126

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