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The Lily: Symbol of the Annunciation
& the Resurrection

Marian T. Horvat, Ph.D.
This year, when Easter falls early on March 27, so near the Feast of the Annunciation, it seems appropriate to look at the symbolism of the lily. For this flower is a symbol connected to both the Annunciation of Our Lady and Our Lord's Resurrection.

A symbol of Our Lady's purity & innocence

As early as the 7th century, the Ven. Bede (673-735) likened the Virgin Mary to a white lily, the white petals symbolizing her pure virginal body and the golden anthers the radiance of her soul.

Annunciation lily

A symbolic pot of lilies between the Archangel & Our Lady

We find reference again to Our Lady's purity when the great St. Bernard (1090-1154) described Our Lady as "the violet of humility, the lily of chastity, the rose of purity."

The Church taught the Annunciation took place in the springtime "at the time of the flowers." Also, according to the scholars of St. Bernard’s time, the name Nazareth in Hebrew signifies a flower. Thus, he would write: "The flower willed to be born of a flower, in a flower, at the time of flowers" (Flos nasci voluit de flore, in flore et floris tempore)." (1)

The flower the medievals found to best symbolize the purity of Mary, a virgin ante partum, in partu et post partem, was the lily, admired as a flower of purity since the time of the Ancients. Thus, by the 14th century, it became common to find the lily in Annunciation paintings and illuminations. Between the Angel Gabriel and the young Virgin at prayer is the vase with the lily. In many scenes of the Annunciation painted during the Renaissance, the Archangel Gabriel holds a lily.

Beautiful legends emerged to explain the origin of the flower. It was told that the lily sprang from the tears of Eve, when she was expelled from the Garden of Eden. But it was yellow until the day that the Virgin Mary stooped to pick it, thus symbolizing the role of the New Eve in restoring to the world the innocence lost by Eve. (2)

The legends also tell of a Jew and Catholic who were sitting together between a wine pot arguing about the perpetual virginity of Our Lady.

The Catholic said to the Jew, "We believe that just as the stalk of the lily grows and conceives the color of green, and afterwards brings forth a white flower without the craft of man or any impairing of the stalk, in that way also Our Lady conceived of the Holy Ghost and afterwards brought forth her Son without blemish of her body, He Who is the flower and chief fruit of all men."

The Jew replied, "When I see a lily spring out of this pot, I will believe and not before."

Then, forthwith a lily sprang out of the pot, the fairest that ever was seen. And when the Jew saw that, he fell down on his knees and said, "Lady, now I believe that thou conceived of the Holy Ghost Jesus Christ, God's Son of Heaven, and remained a clean maiden before and after."

And so the Jew was baptized and became a pious man.

simone annunciation

It became traditional to place a pot of lilies between the Archangel and Our Lady

For this reason, the legend closes, the pot and the lily is set between Our Lady and Gabriel: "For just as this Jew disputed with the Catholic over the manner of the conception of Our Lady, thus did Our Lady herself question the Angel about the manner and way she should conceive and remain a maiden before and after." (3)

By a similar miracle involving a lily, a pious Dominican monk was cured of his doubt of the Madonna's virginal motherhood.

This monk had turned to St. Aegidius to relieve the misgiving in his soul. St. Aegidius removed his doubt without a waste of words.

He merely struck the earth with his staff, and immediately a lily sprang up as a sign of Our Lady's virginity before Our Lord’s birth. Then he struck it a second time with his staff, and another lily arose as evidence of her virginity in His birth. A third striking with the words "Virgo post partum" brought forth the third lily, confirming Holy Mary's virginity after His birth. (4)

Recalling this great miracle, some artists of medieval Annunciation pictures painted three blossoms on a single stem.

Thus, Mary came to be associated not only with the rose, but the lily because it is white, untouched and noble. The lily was also reputed among the ancients to have the power of healing, and so in this too corresponded to the Woman who was to bring to the world the cure for its sins.

The Easter lily

According to a pious legend, after the Death and Resurrection of Our Lord, some of these beautiful flowers were found growing in the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus went to pray the night before His Crucifixion. Legend has it that these flowers sprung up where drops of Christ's blood fell as he prayed." Thus, they are called the "white robed apostles of hope." (5)

In the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, however, it was not common to see the lily in Resurrection paintings. Instead, Christ is almost invariably shown rising from a tomb from which the stone has already been removed.

Easter lilies church

Easter lilies are a familiar sight on altars at Easter

The old masters had a reason for this: They wished to portray the deep significance attached by the Fathers to the removal of the stone. The stone before the tomb was a symbol of the table of stone on which the Ancient Law was written – it is the Ancient Law itself. In the Old Testament the spirit was hidden beneath the letter as Christ was hidden beneath the stone. When He rose from the dead, the Law no longer had any meaning.

It was only in the early 1900s that the lily became a common adornment in churches and homes in the Paschal season and began to be commonly used in Resurrection paintings and depictions. Truly, the flower lends itself readily as a fitting symbol of the Resurrection.

The seemingly lifeless bulb buried in the ground represents the tomb of Christ; from the cold earth new life is released, recalling Christ rising from the dead. Like Christ, the Easter lily is reborn to live again.

This glorious white trumpet-like flower symbolizes His life after death. The snowy white color stands for the purity of the Divine Savior, the gold represents his Kingship, while the trumpet shape signifies Gabriel's trumpet call to rebirth and new life.

Thus, the flower known as the Easter Lily has become a symbol of Christ’s Resurrection and the same flower, also known as the Madonna Lily, represents the Annunciation.


The Easter lily, rich in symbolism

  1. Yrjö Hirn, The Sacred Shrine: A Study of Poetry and Art of the Catholic Church, London: Macmillan and Co, 1912, pp. 281, 282.
  2. Ibid., p. 281.
  3. Ibid., pp. 282-283.
  4. Ibid. These and other episodes are from Mirk's Festial, a collection of 14th century French homilies that were often used as exemplars in sermons.
  5. Allan Swenson, Flowers of the Bible and How to Grow Them, Citadel Press, 2002, pp. 182-183.
  6. Émile Mâle, Religious art in France in the XIII century, London/NY, 1913, p. 194.
Posted March 21, 2016
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