The fleur-de-lis, sometimes spelled fleur-de-lys, is an ancient symbol, although it has come to be closely associated with the nation of France. It consists of three spikes resembling the petals of a flower rising from a central crossbar, and it is clearly intended to represent an iris or lily. Highly stylized floral designs have been used in art and heraldry for a very long time, and the fleur-de-lis is one of the most enduring of these symbols. The basic stylized iris design appears on pottery from ancient civilizations including Mesopotamia and Ancient Greece.
In Old French, the name translates into “flower of the lily.” The symbolism of a fleur-de-lis goes beyond the simple floral image, however. Lilies are associated with the Virgin Mary, and the fleur-de-lis is closely associated with Mary and her virtues as well, as a result. The three spikes are suggestive of the Holy Trinity, and also of a common trio of Christian values: faith, wisdom, and chastity. As such, the fleur-de-lis serves as a symbol of purity and Christian faith.
Around the 1200s, the fleur-de-lis was adopted as a symbol by the French royalty. Using a holy symbol enforced the idea that the ruler was governing by the will of God, and also that members of the French royalty embodied the virtues suggested by the fleur-de-lis. The symbol has other heraldic uses as well, and appears on crests from many other nations including England and Scotland.
In addition to being a heraldic symbol, the fleur-de-lis is also used decoratively. It is often used in ironwork, and as a motif for wall paper, fabric patterns, tile, and book bindings. Many people who feel a close connection with France and French culture have fleur-de-lis ornaments around the home, while numerous organizations use the fleur-de-lis in their logos. It also appears on some regional flags, especially since the classic association with French royalty is beginning to fade.
The proportions and dimensions of the fleur-de-lis vary, depending on the setting. As a general rule, the center spike or petal is larger and more rounded than the two which flank it. Underneath the crossbar, a decorative flourish meant to serve as a continuation of the petals is common. A variety of colors and shades can be used, and many artists draw a fleur-de-lis which is split into two colors, for distinct contrast. Highly stylized designs may bear little resemblance to the original fleur-de-lis, but are generally recognizable because the symbol is so universal.