The Story of the Passion of the Lord

It usually only blooms for three days, thus symbolising the three years of Christ’s teaching or the three days and three nights he spent in the tomb after the crucifixion. The round fruit of the Passiflora that appears after the flower has fallen is, of course, a symbol of the world saved by Christ.

Among the hundreds of flowers that have been given symbolic meaning by Christianity since ancient times, there is one that is completely unique. Not only because, compared to the others, the number of attributes of Christianity associated with it is downright staggering, but also because in its case, and unlike most plants, there is very precise historical documentation to establish precisely when, where and how it became one of the greatest religious symbols. This flower is the passiflora (from the Latin passio = suffering), also known as the passion flower, “Flower of the Lord’s Passion” or the “Lord’s Martyr”.

In 1610, the Augustinian friar Emmanuel de Villegas returned to Europe from a mission in Mexico, which was then called the Kingdom of New Spain. Like many other missionaries, de Villegas brought with him a herbarium of carefully dried exotic plants from Latin America. And among them were passion flowers and their colourful nature drawings. The Augustinian showed them in Rome to the Italian Joannite Giacomo Bosio, who was a very prominent figure at the time as the representative of the Knights Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem to the Holy See and the author of ponderous books on the history of that order, now known as the Order of Malta.

At the sight of the dried flowers, and especially the drawings depicting them in all their splendour, Bosio was dazzled. For the Creator, in His boundless love, had given to all of nature and every divine creation the miraculous symbol of the Passion – the painful suffering of Jesus Christ – in the form of this single flower.

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Indeed, the unique frayed corolla (filaments) of the passion flower can boldly symbolise the crown of thorns. The tripartite stigma of the pistil is reminiscent of the three nails with which the Saviour was nailed to the cross (in another version, they are supposed to symbolise the three hammers used to drive these nails). The five stamens with pollen represent the five wounds inflicted on Jesus, and the ten petals and sepals (outer floral parts) represent the ten loyal apostles (excluding Judas Iscariot and Peter, who denied Jesus three times). The coiled tendrils in the green part of the plant represent the symbolic whips of the Roman executioners of Christ, and the ovary and floral base symbolise the chalice used by Jesus during the Last Supper and later used by Joseph of Arimathea to collect the blood of the Savior after his crucifixion. In the tall style of the flower, one can discern the symbol of the main axis of the cross, while the alternating leaves, which are both oval and palmate, represent the spear and hands of the executioners. The thirty dots visible on the undersides of the leaves symbolise the thirty pieces of silver paid to Judas for his betrayal. The white or red colour of the passionflower's petals symbolises the purity or blood of the Saviour, and the blue coronal filaments represent Heaven, where He ascended.

  The passiflora usually only blooms for three days, thus symbolising the three years of Christ’s teaching or the three days and three nights he spent in the tomb after the crucifixion. The round fruit of the Passiflora that appears after the flower has fallen is, of course, a symbol of the world saved by Christ.

Roses, lilies, pansies...

Plants, as is well known, play a significant role in Christian symbolism, for although faith in its purest form does not need symbols, they are there to reinforce, promote, restore and remind us of it. The list of symbolic meanings attributed to flowers, fruits, perennials, shrubs or trees is almost endless.

The roses alone symbolise the shed blood, suffering and wounds of Christ (red roses) or the chalice that received the Holy Blood. Through this association with the blood of Christ, roses also became a symbol of mystical rebirth. They also symbolise virginity and innocence, which is why they serve as a Marian symbol. In Christian symbolism, the rose can signify Christ himself, but also the perfection of Mary and her virtues, or even the collective of all angels and the saved, i.e. the whole Church that has entered heaven.

Similarly, lilies, most commonly known as symbols of purity, innocence and virginity. But lilies are also symbols of expulsion from paradise (the plant is said to have grown from Eve’s tears) or annunciation (the archangel Gabriel is often depicted with a lily in his hand, while a second lily appears in a vase next to the kneeling Mary).

In mediaeval representations of the person of Christ as judge of the world, the white lily “coming out” of his mouth was a symbol of grace. From the description of the Resurrection of Jesus, it appears that in the same hour the trees and bushes were covered with flowers and “the fragrance of the lily spread like a silvery, fragrant mist”.
The lily as a counterweight on the scales of human sins. A fragment of Hans Memling’s triptych “The Last Judgement”. Photo: Wikimedia
The Bible also speaks of “lilies of the field” as a symbol of trustful devotion to God. In the Hours of the Virgin Mary, one sings: “between the thorns the lily crushes the head of the dragon...,” and in The Last Judgement by Hans Memling, the lily is a counterweight to human sins on the scale of justice. The lily can symbolise the Holy Trinity, the Body of Christ, the soul striving towards God, the faithful soul, the Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary, transience, the word of God, etc.

Other white or blue flowers like lily of the valley or violets are popular symbols of Mary, while red flowers like poppies, carnations or anemones bring to mind the blood shed on the cross by the Saviour.

Aloe symbolises penance and burial with Christ, pansy the Holy Trinity, pea victory over the powers of darkness, hyacinth the longing for heaven, iris forgiveness of sins, buttercup celibacy, thistle sinners condemned to damnation, crocus humility, mallow plea for forgiveness, marigold salvation, narcissus victory over death, snowdrop peace of the soul, periwinkle the Holy Trinity, chamomile struggle against evil, and so on.

Useful for evangelists

However, no flower can match the passion flower for the richness of its symbolism.

Passiflora, as a climbing plant producing extremely tasty, aromatic fruit, was originally found from Brazil through Mexico to Florida, and it was in Florida that European missionaries began cultivating it. It was brought to Europe around 1550 and cultivation was attempted in Spain. This is also where it was first described in detail, in 1570, by the Seville physician and botanist Nicolas Monardes. He himself had never been to the New World, but in his description he cited the accounts of missionaries who saw symbols of the Passion of Christ in the passion flower.

Her flower began to be called the “flower of the five wounds” (referring to the appearance of the five stamens with anthers) or the “flower of the crown of thorns” (referring to the appearance of the jagged corolla). Ultimately, the most popular name became “flos passionis”, or the flower of the Passion of the Lord.

Unfortunately, neither Monardes nor his contemporary pioneers of scientific botanical illustrations – the French “father” of modern horticulture Carolus Clusius (Jules Charles de L’Écluse) and the “father” of English herbalism John Gerard – included any illustrations of the passionflower in their richly illustrated works.

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Meanwhile, thanks to the missionaries, stories began to spread in Europe about how the passion flower was used by them as a “teaching aid”, as by referring to its symbolism they could vividly explain the Passion of Christ to illiterate natives converted to Christianity.

And this was precisely the period of a key change in the Christian West’s attitude towards the indigenous peoples of the New World. The shocking reports of the brutal conquest by Cortés and Pizzaro, who “in the name of God” practically annihilated the Inca and Aztec civilisations with terror, forced Indians into slave labour and spread diseases that were lethal to them, caused mixed feelings – to say the least – in Europe, which was already entering the Enlightenment.

In particular, the A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies, written by the Spanish Dominican Bartolomé de Las Casas and published in 1552 in Seville, describing the cruel treatment of the indigenous population by the Christian invaders, resonated very widely in Europe and led the Catholic Church to recommend that missionaries carry out Christianisation in a more humane way. Las Casas, who as early as 1541 had managed to persuade King Charles I of Spain to prohibit the enslavement of Indians and their forced labour on plantations, gained a serious ally as a supporter of peaceful evangelisation in the form of the Jesuit Order, founded in 1534. For it was they who most effectively promoted an accommodative approach to missionary work, that is, respecting local cultures and traditions and even adapting and modifying the teachings of Christ’s gospel to them.

And it was within this trend that the passion flower became a very useful tool for evangelisation in Latin America. The mystical legend soon spread there that Satan, who was present at the crucifixion of Christ in Jerusalem, fled to the New World with the passion flower after the Saviour’s ascension, unaware, however, of its power to save Indians from the fires of hell.

Emmanuel de Villegas was not, of course, the first to bring back drawings of the passion flower. Today we already know that other missionaries, such as the Italian friar Eugenio Petrelli, also brought back dried passion flower and quite faithful drawings of them from their missions in Latin America at the time, but these usually ended up for centuries in Spanish, Portuguese or Italian religious archives, accessible only to a few.
It also took such an influential figure as Giacomo Bosio at the Vatican to spread knowledge of the unusual passion flower throughout Europe. Bosio, relying on Villegas’ drawings, did so very successfully, describing the passion flower and its symbolism in detail (along with his own drawing) in his work Triomphante e gloriose Croce, published in 1610. And it was the Latin translation of this work, published in 1617 under the title Crux triumphans et Gloriosa (“Triumphant and Glorious Cross”) that launched the great career of the passion flower in the Christian world.

At first, passion flower was naturally taken up by botanists and gardeners, who also made drawings of its flowers. A pioneer in this field was the famous French botanist Jean Robin, gardener to King Louis XIII, known as the Just. The name of the robinia acacia (mistakenly called acacia in Poland) brought from Latin America also comes from Robin’s name, but he also cultivated passionflower in the royal gardens and professionally illustrated it in 1623.

Six years later, an equally realistic drawing of passionflowers was published by the great English botanist John Parkinson, the author of the everlasting work on garden management Paradisi in Sole Paradisus Terrestris, in which he illustrated almost eight hundred plants. Parkinson dedicated this work to the queen, and keen gardener, Henrietta Maria Bourbon, wife of King Charles I Stuart – the only British ruler overthrown by his subjects and beheaded for his tyrannical rule. For her, Parkinson managed to grow passion flower in his garden, or rather greenhouse, and thus began the great fascination with the plant’s flowers that continues to this day in England, where the world’s largest number of their multi-coloured hybrids have been created to date.

Favourite of the old masters

The career of the unusual passion flower in European painting has finally arrived. The Flemish Baroque painter and Jesuit, Daniel Seghers, painted the Triumph of Cupid around 1630, is considered to be the first painting to feature the flower. It depicts three winged cupids in a huge floral garland, with the Passion of the Christ taking centre stage. Seghers painted this painting for Cardinal Ludovico Ludovisi at the Vatican, it later found its way into the collection of French kings and today can be admired in the Louvre.

A few years later, the passion flower appeared in a painting by Albert Eckhout, a Dutch master specialising in portraits and still lifes, who was the first European painter to travel to the New World, specifically to Brazil. And it was there that Eckhout painted a passion flower still life with pineapple, watermelons and other Brazilian fruits. Today, this painting can be seen in the National Museum in Copenhagen.

Over time, of course, the passion flower also became a popular symbol in European religious painting. Dozens, if not hundreds, of paintings were produced by more or less famous painters, in which the passion flower is often placed in the hands of Christ or Mary (as a symbol of her suffering) or woven into garlands or bouquets.

In Poland, a beautiful example of this, although not the only one, is the 17th-century Madonna and Child in a Flower Garland by an unknown Flemish painter from the Brueghl family. In this painting, kept in the Norbertine convent in Ibramowice near Kraków, the Child holds an unnaturally large passionflower, which as the central point of the painting foreshadows the later Passion of Christ.

One of the most famous paintings “with the passionflower” in the world is perhaps the Madonna and Child by the Dutch master Joos van Cleve (1485-1540), displayed at the Cincinnati Art Museum in the United States. This leading representative of the so-called Antwerp Mannerism, whose paintings are also found in the collections of the National Museum in Warsaw and the Czartoryski Museum in Kraków, painted the Madonna holding the Child with her left hand, and holding a red carnation (a symbol of the blood shed for us by Christ) in her right hand, from which the passionflower grows in a strange way.
The problem is that during Joos van Cleve’s time, nobody in Europe could have known about the passionflower, as its depictions only appeared half a century later. Therefore, experts believe that someone added the flower later. However, they did it so skillfully that it wasn’t discovered until 2006 by Professor Michael Abrams, a researcher of flower symbolism in religious works. This naturally greatly increased the interest in van Cleve's 1535 painting.

From Catholic mystics to Japanese gays

The suggestive symbolism of the Passion Flower led to its use not only in art, but also in other areas. For example, “Passiflora of the Eucharist” was the name given to Saint Mary Magdalene de Pazzi (1566-1607), the patron saint of Florence and Naples. She experienced extraordinary mystical ecstasies, teleportation, and physical sufferings equivalent to crucifixion, which she believed were experiences shared with Christ. Today, she is recognized as one of the greatest mystics of the Catholic Church.

In the Bahamas, on the other hand, passionflowers are considered sacred by the local population and no one is allowed to touch them except scientists and clergy, while the local bishops anoint themselves with passionflower oil before the most solemn masses.

One legend about St. Francis of Assisi tells that during one of his fasts, he saw a passionflower vine wrapping itself around the cross of Christ and covering the traces left in the wood by the nails of the crucifixion. In Paraguay, passionflower is its national flower.

As the cultivation of the passion flower for its tasty fruit spread around the world, the flower of this plant also came to exist as a symbol in other, non-Christian cultures. In the Middle and Far East, such as Israel and Japan, the appearance of the passion flower has been associated with a clock face and in these countries it is called the “clock flower”.

In India, the passion flower (called here Panch Pandav) with its five stamens is considered to symbolise the five Pandava brothers, the main characters in the Hindu epic Mahabharata. Hindus also believe that the blue cover of the passion flower symbolises the aura of the Supreme God Krishna.

Recently, the passionflower has been adopted as a symbol of the gay rights movement in Japan. Apparently, this is because the plant is hermaphroditic and its flowers are associated with a certain part of the male anatomy for Japanese gays (in China, this association applies to the chrysanthemum flower). Isn’t that something!

The great career of her offspring
The South American Indians called the spherical fruit of the passion fruit moroku’ya, meaning fruit ready to swallow/fruit in its own bowl ready to eat, so when it arrived in Europe in 1553, it was called passion fruit. The passion fruit, on the other hand, is known as granadilla – from the Spanish granado = apple with many seeds.

Both of these fruits have been highly prized by the indigenous peoples of South America since ancient times, not only for their taste, but also for their medicinal qualities. They were used to soothe coughs and strengthen the heart, lower blood pressure, improve digestion and heal wounds. The Aztecs and Incas were also already familiar with the extraordinary medicinal properties of passionflower herb, i.e. anti-anxiety, sedative, sleep-inducing and even psychotropic – helping to reduce stress and strong emotions.

Hence, passion fruit and the plant as a whole have made a career in the world no less than its spectacularly symbolic flowers.

This career began in the mid-19th century with large crops in the United States, which were followed by crops in Southeast Asian countries, Africa, Australia, Oceania, etc. Today, passion fruit and granadillas are also widely available in our shops and are readily used in confectionery, smoothies, sweets, drinks or simply as a very tasty, aromatic fruit full of vitamins and valuable minerals.

We also now know that the medicinal properties of passiflora herb are due to the indole alkaloids contained in its sap (harman, harmine and harmaline), which are responsible for its sedative and antispasmodic effects, as they reduce the sensitivity of the subcortical centres in the brain and relax the smooth muscles of the gastrointestinal tract, uterus and blood vessels. Passiflora is a common ingredient in modern pharmacy in complex sedative and sleeping preparations, and indications for its use include, among others, relieving symptoms of nervous tension, sedation, combating sleep difficulties, combating nervous gastric problems, increasing the body’s resistance to stress, relieving headaches, relieving anxiety and fear or nervous exhaustion.

There are also studies showing passionflower to be effective in the treatment of Parkinson’s disease. But that’s another story altogether.

– Krzysztof Darewicz

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

– Translated by jz
Main photo: Passiflora, symbol of the Passion, or painful passion of Jesus Christ. Photo DPA/PAP
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