Throughout the history of art, roses have ranked up there with the human form among the more popular subjects of paintings. Throughout history, they have either been depicted on their own, as in a still life painting, or have assisted the subject, such as a rose in a lady’s hand. From the first drawn painting of a rose up until the present day, roses have been seen in numerous fine paintings. However, they’ve mainly been used as a decoration or to convey a special meaning, as opposed to being on their own. While they still stand strong today as a symbol of romance, here we’re focusing on rose paintings in ancient times.

Roses in Early Art
Roses in Early Art

The first painting

The very first documented painting that included a rose was painted circa 1500 BC in Knossos, Crete. The archaeologist who discovered the painting said that it resembled a rose alongside a bird. Since that discovery, roses have appeared in main ancient paintings, although few featured roses as the sole subject of the painting. There were a number of oriental rose drawings circa the 10th century. However, the rose only made rare appearances in art up until the time of the Middle Ages. From 1050-1200 is a period often referred to as the Romanesque art period. The period that followed (1150-1500) is known as the Gothic. This represented a significant religious influence, and roses featured in these paintings as decorations.

A circa 1420 drawing portrayed two couples stood under roses. We don’t know why, but it may be that the roses cast a spell on them. The most famous of the earlier paintings was in a scene from Roman de la Rose (circa 1500s), which more closely resembled an illustration in a book. Roses were used as decorations in many earlier paintings, like in the Wilton Diptych, where roses were used to adorn the hair of angels. Italian painter Piero della Francesca painted Madonna and Child with roses adorning the background.

A symbol of Venus

The works of Sandro Botticelli were famous for featuring roses, like in Birth of Venus in which her sweat was transformed into roses while falling. At this time, the rose symbolised Venus, and was also the highest honour placed on a person by the Catholic Church. Roses were therefore predominant in one form or another in the majority of paintings in this period. The rose symbolised the royal family in Britain in 1461, and later paintings of queens frequently depicted them with roses.

Roses also appeared in a number of other paintings in England, including A Young Man Among the Roses by Nicolas Hilliard. The painting showed roses with thorns, as opposed to the majority of earlier paintings, which were shown as thornless. Next was the period from 1420-1530, which was known as the Early Renaissance period, with the Northern Renaissance running from 1500-1660. This period was one that was dominated by classic paintings, such as still-lives and portraits. Roses featured once again as adornments in numerous of these paintings from artists such as Michelangelo, Leonardo, and Raphael.