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Finding Evidence of a Holy Rose

Peter E. Kukielski

Rosa sancta, also known as Rosa sancta Richard, Rosa richardii, Freya, Heilige Rose, and the Holy Rose of Abyssinia, is a species cross and is closely associated with the gallica class of roses. Rosa sancta Richard was described by Richard in 1848 in his Flora of Abyssinia under the name of Rosa sancta as it was observed in the areas of religious temples. It was introduced to cultivation in Europe around 1895.

First findings

Rosa sancta was first found in Abyssinia (present-day Ethiopia), in the Christian Province of Tigre. The majority of the region’s inhabitants were Orthodox Christians, with a small Muslim subgroup and a few Catholics. Here it had been planted in the courtyards of religious sanctuaries. The enclosed garden, known by the Latin term hortus conclusus, had a sacred meaning for Christians, with the Islamic garden for Muslims. In both religions, the origin of the idealized garden was the terrestrial paradise or Garden of Eden.

The Holy Rose is likely a natural hybrid with its home in Asia Minor and Syria. The question becomes how did it get to Abyssinia? St. Frumentius’s story may help to solve the question. St. Frumentius was born in Phoenicia (modern-day Lebanon) about 300 CE. While on a journey, he was apprehended by the Ethiopians and taken to Axum (Aksum), the Abyssinian capital, and became royal administrator and tutor to the crown prince. St. Frumentius is attributed to reforming the Abyssinians to Christianity. The Pope of Alexandria (Athanasius) consecrated St. Frumentius to Bishop in 326, and he died in 383 CE. 

St. Frumentius’s connection to Christianity explains the rose planted within precincts of Christian churches in his diocese and thus preserved through the centuries.

Finding Rosa sancta in Ancient Egypt

Roses symbolically were used as a connection to the afterlife. Egyptians regarded them as a metaphor for being born in the spring and living in the sun. Funeral wreaths dating back to 170 CE are the earliest known record of existing roses. Substantially preserved wreaths found blanketed with dust and sand were scarcely changed. The roses had been picked in an unopened state to prevent the petals from falling. In drying in the coffin, the petals had shriveled and shrunk into a ball. When moistened in warm water and opened, the set of stamens rises in a beautiful state of preservation. After analyzing specimens of the wreaths at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in London, England (where several are still held in the herbarium), recognized roses are said to be the Holy Rose. Rosa sancta was the rose most used in funeral wreaths and to adorn burial chambers.

Finding Rosa sancta in Ancient Greece.

The name “Knossos” endures from ancient Greek references to the central city on the Greek island of Crete. The site of Knossos had its first human inhabitants sometime in the seventh century BC. Around 2000 BCE, the first “palace period” was identified as the urban area that reached up to 18,000 people. The “palace period” is identified as when the first Cretan palaces were built at Knossos and other cities, including Mallia, Phaestos, and Zakro. These palaces were evidence of a pattern of organization in Crete and Greece through the second millennium and implied more incredible wealth and authority. The palace of Knossos was considered the largest and is identified as having been undeniably grander, more complex, and more flamboyant than the other palaces known at the time.  

At the height of Cretan power around 1450 BCE, the palaces at Mallia, Phaestos, and Zakro were destroyed and smaller settlements elsewhere. Only Knossos remained. The history of Knossos shows that it had been destroyed several times by earthquakes, invasions, and volcanoes; but, it was always rebuilt to more elaborate and complex versions of itself. 

Knossos reveals a rose.

Minos Kalokairinos discovered the ruins of Knossos in 1878. Thanks to Minos’s efforts, we can now look back and understand all that Knossos was offering in our modern times. From complex myths, labyrinths, and floor plans of the palace to a complex city with vibrant city life, extensive pottery, and houses with art, not least frescos with roses!

Today, Knossos is the largest Bronze Age archaeological site on the island of Crete. Excavations there began in 1900 by the English archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans and continued for 35 years. Evans restored large parts of the palace so that it is possible to appreciate the grandeur and complexity of the structure that evolved over the millennia.  

According to Greek mythology, the palace was designed by the famous architect, Dedalos (Daedalus). Just imagine a palace of such complexity that no one could ever find an exit. The myth tells us that the ruler of the palace, King Minos, kept Dedalos prisoner so he would never reveal the palaces’ secrets (and exits). In an attempt to escape, Dedalos built two sets of wings so he and his son, Ikaros, could escape the king and fly off the island. Dedalos warned his son not to fly too close to the sun because the wax held together the wings would melt. Ikaros ignored his father’s warnings and flew higher and higher until the sun melted the wax on his wings. He fell to his death—thus sparking the idiom “don’t fly too close to the sun.”  

Another legend associates the palace of Knossos with the mythological labyrinth that was said to imprison the Minotaur—half-man, half-bull. Thus the legend of Theseus killing the Minotaur is also associated with this fabulous ruin.  

Beyond the folklore, the palace has radiated with “joyous exuberance” through elaborate planes and courtyards. The elegant frescoes discovered decorate the walls and speak of a people who approached the subtleties of life and the splendor of nature with a joyous disposition. What other secrets can this palace expose?

From these archaeological discoveries at Knossos, we now know that among the long history of myths, legends, elaborate architecture, and way of life, we find that the rose was also a part of Greek life. In Knossos, the world’s earliest painting of a rose on the “Fresco with the Blue Bird” at the house of frescos was found. The painting dates to about c. 1550 BCE. 

Sir Arthur described the fresco as follows:

“To the left, for the first time in Ancient Art, appears a wild rose bush, partly against a deep red and partly against a white background, and other coiling sprays of the same plant hang down from a rockwork arch above. The flowers are of a golden rose colour with orange centres dotted with deep red. The artist has given the flowers six petals instead of five, and has reduced the leaves to groups of three like those of a strawberry.”

As Sir Arthur said, this was the oldest painting of a rose ever discovered. With almost all archaeological discoveries, there are differences of opinion.  

One petal, two petals, three petals, four opinions.

C.C. Hurst (1870—1947), a botanist, worked with Sir Arthur in England. Together, they identified the flower as a five-petaled rose. This flower bore “a striking resemblance to the Holy Rose of Abyssinia, Egypt, and Asia Minor.” We now identify that rose as Rosa sancta.

After visiting Crete in 1964, Hurst’s widow Rona, an archaeologist and a botanist reopened the discussion of what kind of rose it was. Rona was able to provide archaeological information that supported a different explanation other than her husband’s identification. Rona described roses containing six petals.

The “petal number puzzle” is further complicated because the ‘Fresco with the Blue Bird’ was restored by an additional expert, E. Gillieron Fils. 

Fils (under Sir Arthur’s guidance) suggested that there were several roses on the fresco: some with six petals which have a yellowish tinge, as Rona Hurst agrees, and one, much fainter, pink rose which appears to have only five petals with strong veining on them. According to Rona, this feature of veining was a distinctive characteristic of Gallica Roses.  

A fourth opinion comes from the work on Minoan Frescos by Mark Cameron, claiming that the six-petaled flowers occur with and without brown-veined leaves. Cameron called these flowers the wild dog rose, Rosa canina.  

So, it is agreed by Hurst and the other opinions above that the fresco contains the earliest known painting of a rose. However, there are several ideas about Rosa sanctaRosa gallica, or Rosa canina. Today, the rose is identified as Rosa pulverulenta, a species related to Rosa sancta.

Finding Rosa sancta today

Rosa sancta can be obtained at a few specialized rose nurseries. The common name is Rosa richardii.  It has charming, fragrant flowers that appear in loose clusters with a creamy pale pink color and only five petals. 

Peter E. Kukielski is an acclaimed horticulturalist who was curator of the award-winning Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden at the New York Botanical Garden from 2006 to 2014. He lives in Portland, ME. 

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