You never know what’s going to arrive when you order unknown books at the British Library. On this occasion I was in for a surprise and needed a trolley to take them to my desk in the British Library.
I’d ordered two books by Mary Lawrance, a woman I then knew nothing much about. These turned out to be quite spectacular. The first was her Book of Roses which became the subject of a post a while back.
Today’s post is about the second book I saw that day, which is a very appropriate choice for Easter.
Inside the enormous archival box was a slim folio-sized volume with George III’s crest embossed in gold on the green leather cover. Turning the first leaves there was the library stamp of Sir Joseph Banks….
…and facing it a hand-coloured engraving of Passiflora serrafolia or the Notched-leaved Passion flower. Even a cursory glance through A Collection of Passion Flowers made me want to know more.
[All the images are from the BL copy unless otherwise stated]
Lots of plants have Christian symbolism, even if they’re not mentioned in the Bible, and one of the enduring talents of missionaries, whether they were with a conquering army or on a proselytising campaign, has been to adapt whatever they found, wherever they were, to illustrate their stories and to provide evidence for their arguments.
The passion flower is probably the best example of that. As the Spanish subjugated central and south America, the flower’s extraordinary appearnce and structure quickly became the symbol of Christ’s suffering and crucifixion all round the world.
If you thought like I did that there weren’t that many kinds of passion flower – the “common” blue one which is hardy in Britain and maybe a few unusual coloured ones that are either greenhouse plants or potentially hardy in sheltered spots in the mildest areas of the country – then, like me, you’re way off target. According to Mary Lawrance’s prospectus, dated May 1, 1799, her intention was to produce 30 plates “to contain every species of Passion-flowers, now in cultivation in the English Gardens”. She would probably have been surprised to discover there are now at least 525 species with new ones still being discovered. On top of that there are currently well over 400 named hybrids.
Most Passiflora are tropical or sub-tropical climbers but there are also a few which are classified as trees, shrubby or even herbaceous species. Most come from the Americas, particularly South America, but there are also some 25 species indigenous to South East Asia, Australia or the Pacific islands. Almost all have such stunning flowers that its easy to see why collectors wanted them to fill the hothouses of Europe.
As always taxonomy is complicated and in some cases unresolved. However all Passion flowers – Passiflora – share a few characteristics. According to the current standard work [Passiflora, by Ulmer & MacDougal, 2004] They “all have a corona of filaments, 5 stamens and sex organs elevated on a conspicuous column, the androgynophore…” [dont snigger this is serious stuff]. Wikipedia explains this in further detail if you want to know more.
So where does the symbolic use of the flower come from?
The first written mention of a passion flower is from 1553 when it was called a granadilla. This was in the Chronicles of Peru by Cieza de Leon, although all it says is “the banks of this river are well covered with fruit trees, amongst which there is one that is very fragrant and delicious called granadilla”. León’s flower is thought to be the species Passiflora ligularis, whose lemon- sized fruit are sweet and aromatic, and now exported and grown around the world.
A few years later in 1569 Nicholas Monardes, the Spanish doctor and botanist, described the granadilla too. His work was translated into English by John Frampton in 1596 who wrote “this name [Granadillas] the Spaniards did give them, for their likeness and fashion they have to our Granadas, which we call Pounganardes [pomegranates], for that they are well neere of the same greatnesse and colour when they are ripe, saving they have not a little crown.”
Monardes is also the first in print to compare Passiflora with the symbols of Christ’s crucifixion, even though he had never actually seen one, noting that it had a marvellous flower and had “figures which are signes of the Passion of our Lorde, that it seemeth they were paynted with much care.”
But this symbolism soon gathered pace. In 1590 Father Jose de Acosta who had seen the plant in flower wrote in his Historia Natural Moral de las Indias (translated/republished by Duke University Press, 2002]
“The blossom of the granadilla, or passion flower, is believed to be a remarkable thing; they say that it has the signs of the Passion, and that the nails and the pillar and the blows can be found in it, and the crown of thorns and the wounds. There is something to be said for this belief, although in order to imagine it one needs a touch of piety to help one see it all; but much is very clearly visible, and its appearance is beautiful in itself, although it has no odor. The fruit it produces is also called granadilla, and it can be eaten or drunk, or rather sucked as refreshment; it is sweet and some think it excessively so.”
Pope Paul V was given dried specimens and drawings and then a live plant in the first few years of the 17thc and by 1609 Simon Parlasca of Bologna University had written a pamphlet which spelled out the associations with Christ. In his illustration the radial filaments were woven into the crown of thorns, the three stigma became the 3 nails, and the 5 anthers the five wounds, while the fruit was portrayed as the sponge offered to Jesus on the cross. Parlasca suggested the plant be called “The flower of the Granadilla, Truly of the Passion of our Lord” and crucially for spreading the story he included the first published illustration of Passiflora which was quickly reused by others.
The common and oft-repeated [but very rarely verified or source attributed] story comes from the slightly later but lengthier work of Giacomo Bosio, which has since been elaborated and developed by all and sundry. Its said that he was shown drawings of a passion flower but thought they were invented rather than real, but was eventually persuaded. It helped that the book he was writing, which was published in 1610 was Triomphante e gloriose Croce or the Triumphant and Glorious Cross, and the imagery of the flower fitted his purpose nicely.
He added to the “standard symbolism” leaves that were like the lances that pierced Christ’s side, and even the bell-shaped bud had a meaning. After the flower has finished the flowerhead closes up again to a bell-shape. Bosio argued that this was deliberate because “it pleased him to create it thus, shut up and protected, as though to indicate that the wonderful mysteries of the Cross and HIS passion were to remain hidden from the heathen people … until the time ordained by HIS highest Majesty.”
Mind you, he also thought that other plants and even certain animals could be read for similar signs of the crucifixion and passion.
Of course all this symbolism is probably unsurprising. Passion flowers are extraordinary in every sense, and to see one for the first time must have been a revelation. And this was becoming the reality for more and more people.
We know that by 1612 Passiflora incarnata was being cultivated in Paris where it flowered for Jean Robin in the Jardin du Roi. It was certainly growing in Rome by 1619 because there is a print inscribed ‘Vera Effigie delle Grandiglia detta Fior della Passione’, which has a short description by the noted botanist and apothecary, Donato d’Eremita, about the flower’s introduction into Italy and its cultivation in the garden of Cardinal Farnese.
Passiflora caerulea was growing in Paris by 1625 and in London by the time John Parkinson published Paradisus in 1629. It’s also clear by then that the Italian image and Easter-related symbolism was widely known, because Parkinson actually includes a version of the print alongside the main plate showing the passion flower. He adds that “some superstitious Jesuite would faine make men believe, that in the flower of this plant are to be seen all the marks of our Savious Passion: and therefore call it Flos Passionis: and to that end have caused figures to be drawne and printed with all the parts proportioned out, as thorne, nailes, speare, whippe, pillar etc in it” before adding scornfully “and all as true as the Sea burnes… God never willed his Priests to instruct his people with lyes: for they come from the Divell, the author of them.”
Thomas Johnson in the 1633 edition of Gerard’s Herbal includes it as a member of the clematis family, and says he has seen it growing in Westminster in the garden of Mistress Tuggy, scion of the famous London nursery family, “where it bears a great many flowers.”
There were those who took the symbolism one stage further, including Antonio Pinelo, a mid-17thc government official and chronicler, who believed that Peru was the site of the Garden of Eden and the apple that the serpent used to tempt Eve was actually the passion fruit.
And the symbolism had taken such a strong hold that it appears in a Madonna and Child by Joos van Cleve. In fact that’s an impossibility because the painting dates from the early 1530s and van Cleve could not have heard of, let alone seen, a passion flower.
The Madonna was originally holding a simple carnation but a subsequent owner had the passion flower added to create a new exotic looking bloom. Given that it is not a particularly accurate depiction it might simply be it was done from one of the early prints and so probably well before they were widely known or grown.
By the time the first members of the family are officially described by Linnaeus in 1753 such powerful symbolism has stuck fast and Passiflora: the flower of the passion it became.
Funnily enough there are some countries where the common name doesn’t relate to the Passion. Greece is one such – where it is called the clock flower.
And it’s not only Christians who see religious symbolism in the flower.
In India, for example, the flower’s blue colour is associated with the colour of the Divine Krishna’s aura whilst its structure is supposed to illustrate the story of the five Pandava brothers, with the Divine Krishna at the center, surrounded by an army of one hundred at the outside edges.
So back to Mary Lawrance. Like her Book of Roses which I discussed in that earlier post, the engravings of the passion flowers are large [19 x 15 inches] and were drawn, engraved and hand coloured in glorious technicolour by Mary herself.
Unfortunately instead of her intended 30 she only published 18 in 6 groups of 3 at half a guineas a set. The plates are dated May 1, 1799; September 1799; December 1799; February 1800; April 1800; June 1800; October 1, 1800 and January 1802. We don’t know whether that was because there was lack of interest or possibly specimens, but there are only 5 complete copies of A Collection of Passion Flowers known. Apart from the British Library copy there is one in the Lindley Library, another at the Mellon collection at Oak Spring and two in private hands, one of which was auctioned by Christies in 2000, and the other previously auctioned by Sothebys 1958. At £190 it would have been a good buy because in 2000 the estimated price was £20,000!
For more information on passion flowers, there is as you’d expect a specialist society – Passiflora Society International and a specialist magazine, Passiflora Online Journal and at least one interesting website which includes other hsitorical and botanical background: https://www.passiflora.it/the-passiflora-genus/