31 October 2011

Hortus Conclusus

In the last month I have been thrown in the path of great literature covering architecture, landscape, art, history, and gardens (or it's been thrown in mine, however you want to look at it). Just last week, while innocently studying the gardens of the Roman Empire, I met a guy named Vitruvius. Back in the 1st century BC he had some pretty cool things to say about the education of an architect, which you can read by clicking here. I daresay that what he said then applies to today's landscape architect or designer, indeed to historians and teachers of said disciplines, as well. He sayeth thusly (and I condense thusly):

1. The architect (landscape architect, garden designer, historian, etc.) should be equipped with knowledge of many branches of study and varied kinds of learning, for it is by his judgement that all work done by the other arts is put to test.

2. Neither natural ability without instruction nor instruction without natural ability can make the perfect artist. Let him (or her, ahem) be educated, skillful with the pencil, instructed in geometry, know much history (emphasis mine), have followed the philosophers with attention, understand music, have some knowledge of medicine, know the opinions of the jurists, and be acquainted with astronomy and the theory of the heavens.

This struck a chord with me because the more I study Garden History, the more obvious it becomes that I need to be a student of all history: art, architecture, social, cultural, military - you name it - for all of these things inform garden design in any given era.

This is also why, some years ago, I sat beside myself in a class on garden history while the instructor used this image in his lecture on Medieval gardens, then proceeded to get it all wrong.
Paradiesgärtlein (Little Garden of Paradise), by Upper Rhenish Master c. 1410
Let me 'splain.

What we have here is a painting completed in the first decades of the 15th century depicting certain illustrious and heavenly personages pleasantly employed in a walled garden, or hortus conclusus, typical of the type found in castle gardens during the Middle Ages. It's not a big painting, barely larger than a standard letter-size sheet of paper. That right there should tell us something, i.e. that it wasn't intended for ostentatious display, and probably hung in someone's living room over the mantelpiece or other prominent place where the owner could gaze on it in meditative contemplation.

Don't judge a canvas by its size, because this one is bursting with symbolism and stories. If you were a person in the Middle Ages you would instantly grasp their meaning, even if you were illiterate (which most people then were). To fully understand the symbolism behind the painting and what it represents, we have to understand something of the time in which it was produced and the audience who might have been gazing on it, for this painting wasn't intended to be simply looked at, it was meant to be read.

So, for the When: the worst was (almost) over and by 1410 the sun was setting on the Dark Ages, the world poised and waiting for the dawn of a new age. The church was the unifying cultural and educational influence, with monks and priests being the scholars of the dwindling population, which was being wiped out to the tune of one-in-three by the Black Death. People were spiritually bereft, and it was the Church's job to spread the gospel message of Christianity.

"May He who Illuminated this, Illuminate me"

Which leads us to How: as I  mentioned, the average person in 1400 couldn't read. This is where all those amazing illuminated manuscripts come in. (But you just said people couldn't read? Ah! It makes me wonder...can it be argued that the Medieval Church invented the graphic novel?)

The printing press won't be invented for another 20 or so years and even then it would be at least another decade before Johannes printed only 180 copies of his Bible, so even though everyone went to church none carried Bibles the way we do today (to say nothing of having a smart phone app to fall back on). To put it simply, the message was delivered by the priest in the pulpit and illustrated by the windows and paintings in the church.

And you thought all that stained glass was just for decoration!

Detail from Little Garden of Paradise

 Art of the Middle Ages was replete with religious symbolism. The enclosed garden itself was a symbol of the Virgin Mary's purity and holiness, as the wall kept out all the diabolical things that were on the other side. Indeed, a symbol of evil can be seen in our painting in the form of a little black devil sitting obediently at the feet of the Archangel Michael, clearly vexed at not being permitted to wreak havoc on this little paradise. Nearby is a dragon at the feet of its slayer, saintly Sir George, who slew the dragon to free a virginal princess. The devil and the dragon have no power here.

Even the flowers had symbolic meanings associated with them, and were painted with such careful detail that botanists and horticultural enthusiasts have been able to identify them. The Language of Flowers was alive and well in the Middle Ages so it would have come as no surprise to you, you poor illiterate Medieval peasant farmer, that the little devil is sitting on a patch of periwinkle which, as everyone knows, is capable of warding off evil spirits.

So even though you couldn't read you could understand pictures and, thanks to the diligence of the church, you would have been well-versed in the stories of the Bible and would have known who Mary, Jesus, the Heavenly Host, and the Saints all were. Not only that, you would have been able to identify them by sight and would have known the stories and legends surrounding them.

So how does all this information affect garden design today? In oh, so many ways, and it sure affects how much we can decipher of garden design of the past. Most people now would look at this painting and think it shows a pretty Medieval garden with Mary reading a book while Baby Jesus plucks on a harp with the nanny, and they would be totally missing the point (perhaps this where the aforementioned garden history instructor erred in his ways which makes me want to ask the same question that Indiana Jones did: "Didn't you ever go to Sunday School!?").

On into modern times, gardens have been designed with art and architecture that convey symbolic messages to visitors either for their entertainment or as a  device to communicate the owner's wealth, prestige, or political standing (the frogs around the Latona fountain at Versailles - not just ornamental amphibians spouting water, no sireebub!). If we, as garden makers, do not endeavor to become "equipped with knowledge of many branches of study and varied kinds of learning", we will lose the ability to create, much less conserve or restore, gardens with cultural and historic significance. Even worse, we will be ill-equipped to teach those coming after us and in a few generations we'll be no better off than the ignorant provincials of the Middle Ages. At least they knew how to read pictures.

Right. That's it for tonight. Now I'm off to France, and the Baroque court of King Louis XIV (that man did have amazing taste in footwear, didn't he!?). Wonder what kinds of surprises we'll find there....


b-a-g said...

Hi - Your blog is really interesting. I look forward to reading more of your posts. Welcome to the Blotanical Community !

Jordi said...

Interesting blog, welcome all guests to BLOTANICAL

Chimeneas said...

That's really interesting! What's the symbolic meaning behind the frogs at Versailles then, simply Louis' wealth/power etc? Or was there a greater reason for choosing frogs in particular? I went to Versailles in the summer, the gardens were amazing! We spent hours wandering around them.

Gardens at Waters East said...

I read around a couple of your postings and enjoyed my visit. Interesting things. Each month I pick one or two new blogs to follow and I am choosing yours today. Hope to visit often. Jack

Deb said...

Hi! Thanks for all the nice comments! Re: the question about the frogs on the Latona fountain at Versailles, I'm working on a post which will answer all your questions, if you can bear to wait ;)!

Chimeneas said...

Great! :D I look forward to reading it, am quite intrigued :)