Fleur-de-lis is literally translated from French as “flower of the lily”, and is widely thought to be a stylised version of the species Iris pseudacorus. Decorative ornaments that resemble the fleur-de-lis have appeared in the artwork from the earliest civilisations.
“The use for ornamental or symbolic purposes of the stylised flower usually called fleur de lis is common to all eras and all civilizations. It is an essentially graphic theme found on Mesopotamian cylinders, Egyptian bas-reliefs, Mycenean potteries, Sassanid textiles, Gaulish coins, Mameluk coins, Indonesian clothes, Japanese emblems and Dogon totems. The many writers who have discussed the topic agree that it has little to do graphically with the lily, but disagree on whether it derives from the iris, the broom, the lotus or the furze, or whether it represents a trident, an arrowhead, a double axe, or even a dove or a pigeon. It is in our opinion a problem of little importance. The essential point is that it is a very stylised figure, probably a flower, that has been used as an ornament or an emblem by almost all civilisations of the old and new worlds.”
It has consistently been used as a royal emblem, though different cultures have interpreted its meaning in varying ways. Gaulish coins show the first designs which look similar to modern fleurs-de-lis.
In the Middle Ages the symbols of lily and fleur-de-lis (lis is French for “lily”) overlapped considerably in religious art. Michel Pastoureau, the historian, says that until about 1300 they were found in depictions of Jesus, but gradually they took on Marian symbolism and were associated with the Song of Solomon’s “lily among thorns” (lilium inter spinas), understood as a reference to Mary. Other scripture and religious literature in which the lily symbolizes purity and chastity also helped establish the flower as an iconographic attribute of the Virgin. The fleur could also draw its design from Jewish tradition. The design is very similar to a lulav, made with a palm frond which sticks up straight and the branches of willow and myrtle trees, which are not as rigid.
In medieval England, from the mid-12th century, a noblewoman’s seal often showed the lady with a fleur-de-lis, drawing on the Marian connotations of “female virtue and spirituality”. Images of Mary holding the flower first appeared in the 11th century on coins issued by cathedrals dedicated to her, and next on the seals of cathedral chapters, starting with Notre Dame de Paris in 1146. A standard portrayal was of Mary carrying the flower in her right hand, just as she is shown in that church’s Virgin of Paris statue (with lily), and in the centre of the stained glass rose window (with fleur-de-lis sceptre) above its main entrance. The flowers may be “simple fleurons, sometimes garden lilies, sometimes genuine heraldic fleurs-de-lis”. As attributes of the Madonna, they are often seen in pictures of the Annunciation, famously in those of Botticelli and Filippo Lippi. Lippi also uses both flowers in other related contexts: for instance, in his Madonna in the Forest.
The three petals of the heraldic design reflect a widespread association with the Holy Trinity, a tradition going back to 14th century France, added onto the earlier belief that they also represented faith, wisdom and chivalry.
“Flower of light” symbolism has sometimes been understood from the archaic variant fleur-de-luce (see Latin lux, luc- = “light”), but the Oxford English Dictionary suggests this arose from the spelling, not from the etymology.
Some modern usage of the fleur-de-lis reflects “the continuing presence of heraldry in everyday life”, often intentionally, but also when users are not aware that they are “prolonging the life of centuries-old insignia and emblems”.
The symbol may be used in less traditional ways. After Hurricane Katrina many New Orleanians of varying ages and backgrounds were tattooed with “one of its cultural emblems” as a “memorial” of the storm, according to a researcher at Tulane University. The US Navy Blue Angels have named an elegant looping flight demonstration manoeuvre after the flower as well, and there are even two surgical procedures called “after the fleur.”