This plant symbolizes either the Sun in its daily course or the movement of light radiating from the Sun. It first adorned the brows of Roman emperors and of the kings of eastern Europe and of Asia and was then used in Christian iconography as a characteristic of the persons of the Trinity, Our Lady, angels, prophets, apostles and saints.
This solar plant is depicted in a glass-painting of St Remy at Rheims, ‘two heliotrope stalks springing from the haloes round the heads of Our Lady and of St John, weeping at the foot of the Cross’. The property possessed by this flower of turning to follow the Sun’s course symbolizes the attitude of the lover or of the soul, continually turning eyes and thoughts towards the beloved; and it symbolizes perfection, always stretched out to the contemplative presence which seeks to unite with it.
Thus the heliotrope next comes to symbolize prayer. A flower which grows alone, according to Proclus, ‘it sings the praise of the leader of the divine order to which it belongs, spiritual praises, and praise which can be apprehended by reason, touch and feeling.’ Proclus regarded the sky-blue heliotrope as praying because it always turned, in token of its fidelity, to look towards its Lord.
According to Greek legend, Clytie was first loved and then abandoned for another by the Sun. She could not be consoled, died of grief and was changed into a heliotrope, the flower which always follows the Sun as if it were the lover she had lost. She symbolizes the inability to overcome one’s emotions and receptiveness to the influence of the beloved.
Its delicate perfume makes it a symbol, too, of intoxication, with mysticism as much as with love or glory.