Friday, May 31, 2013

Hortus Conclusus - The Garden Enclosed

In today's Office of Readings, on this day of the Feast of the Visitation, the first reading is from the Song of Songs. It seems to have been a common theme  in late medieval art to portray Mary interpreted as the 'Garden Enclosed' as referred to in the Song of Songs. As someone who loves gardens I like the idea of the garden having a place in sacred art. (I am talking here of the garden grown for beauty, the 'flower garden' as it would be called here in the US).

I am not aware of this being a common subject for artists to paint today and one wonders why? The first answer that comes to mind, almost as a kneejerk response, is that genuine piety for Mary has declined and this is just one more casualty in the devotional lexicon.

It might be this, but also, I wonder if it is not a reflection also of a different attitude to gardens and to man's place in creation. Here are some personal thoughts about this in this regard. As ever when I stray into personal thoughts, I expect there will be NLM readers who are more knowledgeable and wise and so would love to see comments on the place of this genre in sacred art today.

Historically, as I understand it, the wilderness was seen the place of untamed nature which is the home of the devil. Christ went to meet him there for 40 days and when monks and hermits went out to the desert, it was not, so I have have been told, to escape the city, but rather to engage in spiritual battle in the wilderness, the lair of the enemy. In the painting below by the Flemish artist Robert Campin, we see the father of monasticism, Anthony Abbot (with St Catherin of Siena, John the Baptist and, I think, St Barbara), now resting in the garden having completed, one presumes his spiritual battles in the Egyptian wilderness.

Today, however, the beauty of nature as wilderness sometimes seems to be recognized more readily that
the beauty of nature cultivated. Here in the US where people particularly prize their national parks as places of wilderness unaffected by man. They are wonderful places to visit and very well run. but I am always struck by the fact that they do not preserve the beauty of farmed land. In the UK, where I come from there is no part of the land, as far as I am aware, that is not man-affected, yet I miss the beauty of its countryside very much. Our national parks, such as the Lake District, are preserving traditionally farmed beauty. The wilderness is beautiful, but it is part of a fallen world and we know objectively that by God's grace man can raise the beauty of nature up to something higher than the wilderness (he is also capable of destroying its beauty too we must remember when attempting to make a judgement on this).

The second point that arises in my consideration of this is the question as to whether or not gardening is a male or a female passtime? Talking to many here in the US, the impression I get is that people see planting vegetables or rearing animals for food as a masculine thing; but growing a garden for its beauty? Definitely not. As a general rule, amongst the students, here, the young men are interested in activities linked to rearing chickens, keeping bees or growing vegetables, but growing flowers? No.

In response to this I would say that Adam was a gardener and Christ, the new Adam, was mistaken for a gardener; and the garden was the place that He went to to pray to his Father. Also, while Mary is identified with the garden, it was the man in the Song of Songs who cultivated the garden and gathered lilies for his love. Furthermore, my great grandfather was head gardener of the Duke of Northumberland (so the family lore goes); my grandfather was and my dad still is a very keen amateur gardener (my father's garden was even featured once on national television). I don't expect my citing of family members to persuade many, but it speaks eloquently to me - all were men!

Aristotle it seems to suggest that the natural home for man is the city in close association with others and scripture seems to support this. In psalm 106 the city is the place of culture from which the wilderness is banished and in the Book of Revelation, our final home will be the city of the New Jerusalem; but this is a garden city in which the Tree of Life flourishes and Eden has been restored by Christ the Head Gardener. So perhaps we can conclude from this that the garden is a place of beauty, a retreat for relaxation and contemplation for city dwellers.  In the biblical references I have found it is a place in which everything is grown for its beauty and to delight the senses - taste, smell, vision - rather than simply sustenance. The little bit of reading  about medieval gardens seems to suggest that, consistent with this, they were designed with both utility and beauty in mind (just as with architecture it seems, utility and beauty are seen as two aspects of what is good). By this the work of man adds harmony to the hymn of the cosmos in proclaiming the glory of God.

Leo XIII said in his encyclical Rerum Novarum, that men  (I assume here in the sense of all humanity) should be encouraged to cultivate the land and in so doing will, 'learn to love the very soil that yields in response to the labor of their hands, not only food to eat, but an abundance of good things for themselves and those that are dear to them [my emphasis].'  In advocating that men grow flowers I am not suggesting that this is part of discover of their 'feminine side'; rather, that the cultivation of beauty for contemplation should be seen as much a masculine occupation as a feminine one. Perhaps there are parallels here with the feminization of prayer and contemplation that has lead to a drop in the number of vocations. Maybe the antidote lies with fathers - what we need here is fathers who not only lead the family in prayer, but are happy once again cultivate natural beauty as an example to their sons...even if it is only watering a window box to grow the flowers to give to his wife!

Pictures below is  Noli me tangere by John of Flanders, 14th century - Christ with holy spade! And below that: Martin Schongauer, Madonna in Rose Garden, 15th century; and below: Gerard David, and Robert Campin, both late gothic Flemish. Picture above are from 14th century English psalters.




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