10 October 2015

Grave matters: passionflowers

Draped over a wall just around the corner from where I live is a passionfruit vine. I pass this way almost daily and always marvel at the beauty of its flowers.

Then, during one of my frequent walks through Cathays Cemetery, I noticed how often the passionflower appears on the headstones there. These are mostly stones from the late 19th century, though one is from as recently as 1924. The passionflower sometimes appears alone, sometimes in conjunction with other flowers, like roses and lilies, sometimes with foliage like ivy. It is carved on the stones of both men and women.

I guessed the flower’s presence was something to do with the passion of Christ but didn’t realise how specific the symbolism was until I researched it further. 

Working from the outside inwards, the flower has ten petals which represent the ten apostles. The rays that circle the flower form a nimbus, which, for Christians, is symbolic of the divine glory of Christ. Next come the five stamens representing the five wounds Christ received on the cross. The flower’s ovary is shaped like the hammer that was used to drive the nails into Christ’s hands and feet, and the stigma is divided into three parts which equate to the three days Christ lay in the tomb prior to his resurrection. Coincidentally, the passionflower only blooms for three days. And, lastly, the leaf of the passionfruit vine is shaped like a spearhead, representing the spear that pierced Christ’s side.

Not all stone masons seem to have understood the symbolism, I notice, as not all of their flowers have the precise numbers of petals and stamens but, still, I find it fascinating how much meaning has been attributed to this one little flower and will look with new eyes as I pass that passionfruit vine each day.

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