In rosa vernat lilium: unity in diversity of order, sex, and season

In the scientific classification of plants, roses and lilies belong to different taxonomic orders. Biologists categorize humans by sex chromosomes or by gamete size as female and male. Most persons readily distinguish the celestial bodies sun and moon, the environmental qualities darkness and light, and the seasons winter and spring. Nonetheless, the medieval song Within a rose blooms a lily {In rosa vernat lilium} asserts unity in diversity across these categories.

In rosa vernat lilium is attested in its earliest manuscripts as a conductus, a type of non-liturgical Christian sacred song cultivated in northern France between 1160 and 1250. This conductus probably was composed about 1200. It’s written for two voices in an early form of polyphonic music. Scholars have mainly considered it in the context of early European polyphonic music.[1] Its text, which seems to have been written to celebrate Christmas, deserve more attention.

In rosa vernat lilium provides a poignant witness to medieval belief in unity in diversity. The poem unites natural differences:

Within a rose blooms a lily —
a flower within a flower flourishing.
When a young daughter gives birth to a son,
in the darkness shines
a light without darkness.
In the hidden recesses of her flesh,
the true day dawns.

{ In rosa vernat lilium
Flos in flore florescit
Dum nata parit filium
In tenebris lucescit
Lux sine tenebris
In carnis latebris
Vera dies diescit }[2]

In early Christian imagery, the (red) rose was associated blood and martyrs, and the (white) lily with chastity and virgins. For Christians, the Virgin Mary is the preeminent virgin, and the crucified Christ, the preeminent martyr. However, the fifth-century poet Caelius Sedulius figured Mary as a rose:

And just as a tender rose arises from sharp thorns,
having nothing that would hurt, and covers its mother with honor,
so from the root-stock of Eve comes holy Mary,
a new virgin to expiate the wrong of the ancient virgin.

{ Et velut e spinis mollis rosa surgit acutis
Nil quod laedat habens matremque obscurat honore:
Sic Evae de stirpe sacra veniente Maria
Virginis antiquae facinus nova virgo piaret }[3]

In rosa vernat lilium expands upon Sedulius’s imagery to have Christ the lily arise from the rose Mary. A rose arising from thorns is a natural image of a rosebush. A lily arising from a rose, in contrast, is a combination of categorically different flowers. Nonetheless, within this conductus, a lily arising from a rose is no more unnatural than a male being born from a female. The combination of darkness and light in the conductus similarly unites a difference expressed in John 1:5:

And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

{ et lux in tenebris lucet et tenebrae eam non conprehenderunt

καὶ τὸ φῶς ἐν τῇ σκοτίᾳ φαίνει καὶ ἡ σκοτία αὐτὸ οὐ κατέλαβεν }[4]

In rosa vernat lilium emphasizes reversal of contradiction, the abolition of categorical difference, and the impossible happening. It’s the wonder of Christmas and the “laughter of Easter {risus paschalis}.”

golden rose that Pope Leo XII presented to Caroline Augusta, Empress of Austria

In rosa vernat lilium affirms mutuality with difference, rather than subordination. The sun and moon are very different celestial bodies. In traditional Greco-Roman religion, sun and moon were associated with much different male and female gods.[5] Nonetheless, like woman and man in the Christian marital ideal, sun and moon in this conductus affirm and strengthen each other:

From the moon flashes forth the sun’s
brightening ray.
The moon, never waning,
shows the sun to the world.
When this sun is joined with the moon,
neither suffers an eclipse,
but each shines more than ever.

{ Ex luna solis emicat
Radius elucescens;
Mundanis solem indicat
Luna nunquam decrescens;
Hic sol dum lune iungitur,
Neuter eclipsim patitur,
Sed est plusquam nitescens }

In medieval poetry, love transforms seasons from their normal character. In this conductus, the mother Mary similarly creates spring in winter:

In time of winter
spring blooms beyond nature.
From a worthy body
a mother spreads a worthy fragrance.
O reward of spring!
Sadness of winter
flees from the true flower.

{ In hiemali tempore
Ver vernat ultra morem;
Dignum de digno corpore
Mater fudit odorem.
O veris premium:
Hiemis tedium
Ad verum fugit florem. }

The Christian church is centered on the woman Mary, the true flower. She is the model for all seeking to incarnate Christ, a fully masculine man, in themselves. In rosa vernat lilium is completely inconsistent with men’s subordination to women. Men are categorically different from women, but united equally with women as human persons.

In our benighted age of ignorance and bigotry, the humane subtlety of medieval understanding can scarcely be understood. Consider, for example, The Nativity Story, a mass-market, American-made film distributed to theaters in 2006. The Nativity Story retells the biblical story of Christmas. Mychael Danna’s score for the film includes a Latin song beginning “In rosa vernat lilium”:

Within a rose blooms a lily —
a flower within a flower flourishing
according to God’s plan.
The true day dawns.

From the moon flashes forth the sun’s
brightening ray.
It shows the manger —
a star never waning.

{ In rosa vernat lilium
Flos in flore florescit
Secundum Dei consilium.
Vera dies diescit.

Ex luna solis emicat
Radium elucescens;
Et praesepium indicat.
Stella numquam decrescens. }[6]

From the unity in diversity of the original conductus, only the image of a lily springing forth from a rose has survived. The adaptation inserted conventional references to God’s plan and the Christmas manger. The adaptation eliminated the wondrous unities of the medieval conductus: sexes, seasons, darkness and light, sun and moon. The adaptation should be credited with aspiring to medieval cultural heights, yet it falls far short. Alas for the loss of enlightenment!

With In rosa vernat lilium, medieval European culture expressed in a sophisticated way unity in diversity. That important idea has drowned in meaningless words. Men will not achieve equality with women until unity in diversity is meaningfully understood.

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[1] Concerning In rosa vernat lilium as a conductus in the context of sacred music, Crocker (1966), Anderson (1976-88), Falck (1981), and Mazzeo (2015). Everist (2018) provides broader analysis of conductus, but no analysis of In rosa vernat lilium specifically.

In rosa vernat lilium survives in five manuscripts. See its entry in CPI Conductus / Cantum Pulcriorem Invenire {To find a more beautiful song} Conductus. The earliest manuscript in which it survives is Wolfenbüttel, Herzog August Bibliothek, Guelf. 628 Helmst (W1), written in the 1230s. It also survives in Bodleian Library, MS. Add. A. 44 (The Bekynton Anthology), written early in the thirteenth century; and Florence, Biblioteca Mediceo Laurenziana, Pluteo 29.1, written in the 1240s. On dating conductus, Mazzeo (2015) pp. 152-207.

The sequence beginning “From the golden flower of the first mother, Eve, came forth the flowering rose like the sun {Aureo flore prime matris eue florens rosa processit sicut sol}” dates from no later than the tenth century. Boynton (1994) p. 25. In rosa vernat lilium may have existed earlier as a hymn before it became a conductus.

The rose and lily have long been important Christian symbols. They have typically been associated with types of virtues:

The grouping of diverse virtues with violets, roses, and lilies originated in non-Marian contexts, such as Ambrose’s commentary on the Gospel of Luke. Within a Christological exposition of Luke 12.27, Ambrose introduced the hortus clausus of the Song of Songs, “where integrity, chastity, devotion…is, there the violets of confessors, the lilies of virgins, the roses of martyrs are.” Gregory the Great, in one of his homilies on the prophet Ezechiel, expands the characterization of the three flowers and links them more immediately to the virtues. Gregory associates the lily with virginity and links the violet to the humble, who “preserve the purple of the celestial kingdom in their mind.” Jerome also associates the flowers with virtues.

Boynton (1994) p. 33, footnotes omitted. The early sixteenth-century Litany of Loreto calls to Mary as a “Mystical Rose {Rosa Mystica}.”

[2] In rosa vernat lilium / In rosa uernat lilium, stanza 1 (of 3), Latin text from Anderson (1976-88) vol. 3, pp. 78-82, my Latin translation, benefiting from the English translation of id. For an earlier Latin edition, Dreves (1895) p. 69 (song 46). For an alternate English translation, Crocker (1966) pp. 81-2. The subsequent two quotes from In rosa vernat lilium are stanzas 2 and 3, respectively, and are similarly sourced.

[3] Caelius Sedulius, Easter Song {Carmen paschale} 2.28-31, Latin text from Huemer (1885), my English translation. For the current best edition and translation, Springer (2013). For a freely available, partial English translation of Carmen paschale, Sigerson (1922). For Carmen paschale 2.28, Sedulius seems to have adapted Virgil, Eclogue 5.39: “the thistle and spine-shrub arise with sharp thorns {carduus et spinis surgit paliurus acutis}.” On Sedulius’s sources in figuring Mary, Heider (1918) pp. 65-7.

The beloved of the Song of Solomon is like a lily among thorns. Song of Solomon 2:2. In Christian literature, thorns have regrettably been used as a metaphor disparaging men’s sexuality. Isaiah prophesied a savior springing forth from the stump of Jesse. Isaiah 11:1.

[4] John 1:5, from the Blue Letter Bible. The Latin text, provided for comparison with that of the conductus, is from Jerome’s Vulgate.

[5] On sun and moon in traditional Greco-Roman religion and Christian understanding, Rahner (1957), Chapter 4.

[6] Mychael Danna, soundtrack for The Nativity Story (2006), Latin text from LyricsTranslate, my English translation. Danna’s soundtrack is generally regarded highly. Here’s Jonathan Broxton’s review.

[images] (1) Golden rose that Pope Leo XII presented to Caroline Augusta, Empress of Austria. Made by Giuseppe and Pietro Paolo Spagna in Rome about 1818-19. Source image by Dennis Jarvis (from Halifax, Canada) via Wikimedia Commons. Here are other images of this golden rose. Popes bless a golden rose on the third Sunday of Lent (Laetare Sunday) and occasionally give them as a gifts to eminent persons. (2) In Rosa Vernat Lilium by Mychael Danna from the original motion picture score for The Nativity Story. Via YouTube.


Anderson, Gordon A. 1976-88. Notre-Dame and Related Conductus: Opera Omnia. Henryville, PA, Institute of Mediaeval Music.

Boynton, Susan. 1994. “Rewriting the Early Sequence: Aureo Flore and Aurea Virga.” Comitatus: A Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies. 25(1): 21-41. Alternate source.

Crocker, Richard L. 1966. A History of Musical Style. St. Louis, N.J: McGraw-Hill Book Company.

Dreves, Guido Maria, ed. 1895. Cantiones et Muteti: Lieder und Motetten des Mittelalters. Analecta hymnica medii aevi, volume 20. Leipzig: O. R. Reisland.

Everist, Mark. 2018. Discovering Medieval Song: Latin Poetry and Music in the Conductus. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Falck, Robert. 1981. The Notre Dame Conductus: A Study of the Repertory. Henryville, PA: Institute of Mediaeval Music.

​Heider, Andrew B. 1918. The Blessed Virgin Mary in Early Christian Latin Poetry. Washington, DC: Catholic University of America. Alternate source.

Huemer, Johannes, ed. 1885. Sedulius, Opera Omnia. Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum, 10. Vienna: C. Gerold.

Mazzeo, Jacopo. 2015. The Two-Part Conductus: Morphology, Dating and Authorship. Ph.D. Thesis, University of Southampton, UK.

Rahner, Hugo. 1957. Griechische Mythen in Christlicher Deutung. Rhein-Verlag AG. Translated by Brian Battershaw (1963). Greek Myths and Christian Mystery. New York: Harper & Row.

Sigerson, George. 1922. Sedulius. The Easter Song: Being the First Epic of Christendom. Dublin: Talbot Press.

Springer, Carl P. E., ed. and trans. 2013. Sedulius. The Paschal Song and Hymns. Writings from the Greco-Roman World, volume 35. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature. Introduction.

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