The iris is France's national flower, and a stylized version of the flower is used for the country's insignia and national emblem. The iris, or fleur-de-lis, has been used to represent French royalty since the 13th century and is said to signify perfection, light and life. In heraldic designs used by the French monarchy, the three petals also represented wisdom, faith and chivalry.

History

Fleur-de-lis on gate

The iris flower was named for the Greek goddess Iris, who was a messenger on Mount Olympus. The flower was the symbol of idea and message in ancient Greece. Men planted an irises on the graves of their wives and lovers in ancient Greece as a tribute to the goddess, who led the souls of women to the Elysian fields.

The iris was also adopted by the ruling class of the Roman Empire and eventually came to symbolize the predominantly Catholic French kingdom. While the French did not formally adopt the fleur-de-lis as a heraldic charge until the 12th century, as an emblem it has been found on coins and seals as early as the 10th century in France, England, Spain and other countries.

Identification

Iris petal

The primary features of the iris are the three petals. The central one stands straight, while the other two curve in either direction away from it. The three petals are often referred to as the standards, and the three outer sepals are called the falls.

There are more than 200 varieties of iris flowers in a large range of colors, from pure white to a deep purple. The plant takes its name from the Greek word for rainbow.

Religious Significance

Pattern of colorful stained glass window in French church

Due to the iris' three petals, it has been considered representative of the Holy Trinity by the Roman Catholic Church, and is also the special symbol of the Virgin Mary. Because of this religious connotation, the iris has been a worldwide symbol of divine protection for centuries. According to heraldica.org, the flower acquired its strong religious connection through the influence of Saints Bernard and Jerome. Louis VII (1120-1180), one of France's most pious kings, adopted the fleur-de-lis as a symbol of his Christian beliefs.

Joan of Arc carried a white banner that featured the fleur-de-lis to let the English know that God was blessing the French troops in their support of Charles VII's successful bid for the French throne in 1429.

Cultural Significance

Close-up of articulated hand of armor gripping battle axe

In the 12th century, either King Louis VI or King Louis VII (sources disagree, reports fleurdelis.com) became the first French king to display the stylized iris on his battle shield. English kings added the fleur-de-lis to their coats of arms to emphasize claims to the French throne, and knights added the symbol to their family insignias. These emblems were embroidered onto woven surcoats worn over a knight's battle armor, coining the term "coat of arms."

Considerations and Legends

Yellow irises

According to legend, King Clovis I followed a frightened doe across a river on his way to do battle with the king of Aquitania Alaric near Poitiers, France, in 507. Upon reaching the opposite bank, Clovis picked a wild yellow iris and put it on his helmet as a symbol of his future victory. Since then, kings of France have used the fleur de lis as their emblem, reports heraldica.org. King Louis XII (1460-1515) officially made the fleur-de-lis, or iris, the national French flower and symbol.

Misconceptions and Theories

Close-up of articulated hand of armor gripping weapon

Recent, unconfirmed theories about the Holy Grail assert that the fleur-de-lis is a symbol of a mythical holy origin of France through a union between a descendant of Mary Magdelene and Jesus Christ and King Meroveus II, who was crowned at age 15 in 448. Despite arguments that the term fleurs-de-lis, also spelled fleur-de-lys, literally translates into "flower of the lily," the Metropolitan Museum of Art claims it probably means the "flower of Loys." This is how the long line of French kings named Louis referred to themselves up until Louis XIII in the mid-1600s. The historical use of a yellow fleur-de-lis as a symbol suggests that the connection is actually to the native wild yellow iris of legend and not the lily.