When we think of the sanctuary during Lent, we recall an environment deliberately rendered stark and barren — ornamentation and statuary are removed or in some parishes covered, no altar flowers are present, and it is devoid of any color except for the penitential purple.
The only plants allowed during this church season are greens such as ivy and ferns, and dried florals such as grasses, and those called the “immortelles” — a group of flowers that maintain their beauty after “death.” Of the plants that can be used throughout Lent, the ivy connects especially well — it reminds us to cling to God. It symbolizes fidelity of love, triumph and hope.
The Blessed Virgin Mary displayed these sentiments through her steadfastness as she faithfully cooperated with God’s plan.
There is a legend from the 15th century of a knight’s fidelity to Our Blessed Mother and how Our Lady of the Vine shielded him. The account has it that this Christian knight of Viterbo, Italy, was defenseless when his enemies came upon him. He knew of the miracles associated with a painting of Our Lady — attached to a tree surrounded by ivy — in a nearby forest, and so he fled to Mary’s image to seek protection. He later shared that wrapping his arms around the tree, clinging with hope that she would hide him from his pursuers, Mary rendered him unseen among the stems of the vines.
That was not the only great story attributed to this 1417 painting. Commissioned by Mastro Baptist Magnano Iuzzante, the large painted tile was attached to an oak tree on his property near a treacherous road. It was hoped that Our Lady would protect the townsfolk on their travels. Over time, a natural tabernacle grew from vines and their tendrils drawing the ivy up and around the mighty oak.
As years went by, goes the story, three times the tile had been removed and taken to a more secure place, and each time it was found the next morning, miraculously back on the tree.
Then, in 1467, the plague came to the region. It was recorded that some 30,000 people fled to the image and kneeled beneath the oak, praying for deliverance from the disease. A few days later the plague miraculously ended and, headed by their bishop, the people returned in gratitude for Our Lady’s intercession.
We read about “clinging as the ivy” in the book of Sirach: “I bud forth delights like a vine” (24:17). Here the clinging action is related to seeking Wisdom and the promise of a grounding in the Holy Spirit. In ancient texts, according to notes in the New American Bible Revised Edition, the verse continues: “Do not grow weary of striving with the Lord’s help, but cling to him, that he may reinforce you” (Sir 24:23).
The ivy is a plant that secures itself upon almost any structure. Because of this tendency to seek out and cling to support, it is a symbol of hope and the fidelity of love. An ivy always seeks to be upheld.
And what a beautiful reminder as we journey through Lent — that like Mary (and St. Joseph and all the saints), we cling to God with constancy and anticipation.
Finding footholds of faith — spreading tendrils of hope like a vine against a wall, anchored and secure in the presence of opposition — our lives flourish with grace. May we enter into a fruitful Lenten season, seeking out all the spiritual support we need.
Margaret Rose Realy is a Benedictine Oblate and the author of “A Garden Catechism: 100 Plants in Christian Tradition and How to Grow Them” (OSV, 2022).