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The fascinating Passion Flower (“Passiflora”) became known to the West around A.D. 1610, when an Augustinian friar named Emmanuel de Villegas visited Rome from Mexico, bringing drawings to Jacomo Bosio, a monk who was writing a treatise on Christ’s Passion. Bosio looked at the drawings, but was tentative about including mention or drawings of them in his narrative as they looked so strange he figured the drawings given to him must be exaggerated. But more drawings came, and visiting Mexican Jesuits assured him that the flowers were quite real.
In the flower’s three bracts, he saw a symbol of the Trinity; it its corona filaments, he saw the Crown of Thorns, and in its stigma, the three nails and the column at which Christ was scourged. He described the stamens as “five spots or stains of the hue of blood evidently setting forth five wounds received by our Lord on the Cross.” The leaves of the plant are shaped like St. Longinus’s spear, and their undersides bear round spots signifying the 30 pieces of silver for which Christ was betrayed by Judas.
The flowers he saw opened for one day, and then closed back up into their bell-like shapes. This, he postulated, could be so because “in His infinite wisdom it pleases Him to create it thus, shut up and protected, as though to indicate that the wonderful mysteries of the Cross and of His Passion were to remain hidden from the heathen people of these countries until the time preordained by His highest Majesty.”
There are over 600 species of Passiflora (some with edible fruits — “passion fruit”), so they come in all colors — white, yellow, pink, red, purple, blue. They originate in the South American rain forest, but are now found all over the world. Passiflora is known in Spanish not only as “flor passionis,” but as “flor de las cinco llagas” — “flower of the five wounds.”
An Interesting Aside
The painting “Madonna and Child” by Joos Van Cleve was painted some time between A.D. 1530 and 1535 and has as one of its highlights a Passion Flower rising up out of a carnation, both held by Our Lady. The Passion Flower combined with a carnation, a symbpol of the Incarnation, reflects the Child’s Nature and destiny, while the Christ Child reaches for three cherries, a symbol of the Trinity. Remember, though, that the Passion Flower wasn’t discovered by Europeans until around A.D. 1610 — but the painting was made some 80 years before. This anachronism threw the provenance of this painting into chaos before it was determined that the Passion Flower was added later, by an unknown artist. The painting:
Detail of the Passion Flower: