Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Mary Garden

 The Medieval period in Europe was an interesting but bumpy time for women. Women were viewed as the instrument of evil, an attitude encouraged by the church. They were subservient to men and led degraded lives. There existed anti -feminist literature and the fabliaux, which are rhymed verses that spoke of contempt for women and their deceit.
In the early twelfth and thirteenth centuries this attitude began to change. Part was due to the introduction of the chivalric code of honour. The cult of chivalry, or courtly love, existed only among the nobility. The gentlewoman who looked for love or romance outside of marriage found it with the chivalric knight's attention. Women of nobility enjoyed great attention, were deferred to and paid homage to. 

A typical hortus conclusus

The Cult of the Virgin further enhanced the concept of woman. Pilgrimages to shrines of the Virgin Mary were widespread. Shrines were dedicated to her, flowers named after her and Lady Chapels were established in churches. Due in part to this Cult of the Virgin women slowly enjoyed  a position of greater esteem in man's eyes.
The Mary Garden came about in the late Middle ages. Increased interest in the Virgin Mary took place in the 15th century primarily due to the Rosary Movement in Germany. The movement spread throughout German speaking areas and into Italy. The Mary Garden was most likely inspired by the monastery's cloister, a walled garden with a fountain or well in the center. The flowers grown in this garden took on a symbolism to represent the qualities of the Virgin Mary. The primary flowers are the rose (martyrdom), the lily (purity) and the violet (humility). Over time many more flowers became associated with Mary or were named after her, some which may be familiar to you such as Mary's Gold, Madonna's Herb, Our Lady's Delight. 

The Virgin and Child in the hortus conclusus by Stefano da Verona c1410

These attributes to Mary show up in paintings during the 15th and 16th centuries. The Virgin Mary is sitting in an enclosed garden or hortus conclusus, which symbolizes the chastity belt. Most times she is sitting on the ground amongst the flowers with the Christ child and angels playing musical instruments. Often there is a unicorn which represents the mystical hunt, an allegory of the Incarnation. The fountain in the garden symbolizes the Virgin's purity and abundant giving. 
Mary Gardens are still grown today. Sometimes they are found in church gardens but mostly they are made for personal use. Instead of the fountain or well a statue of the Virgin Mary is the focal point in the garden.

Mary on a Rose Bench - note the violets and lily of the valley


  1. Interesting history. I think the close association of religion and flowers/gardens is a fascinating topic.

  2. Yes I certainly agree Jennifer. They are definitely intertwined. Without the monks and monasteries we would have lost gardens along with the techniques of gardening during the turbulent medieval period. I am working on a post regarding nuns and gardens that you may find interesting too. Keep tuned.

  3. Dear Patty, This is a most interesting posting which I have found fascinating and have enjoyed a great deal. As a frequent visitor to Venice and its churches, I am most intrigued by all the attributes of the Saints and the Virgin Mary in paintings and sculpture which enabled those too poor to travel to recognise those Saints or the story from the Bible to which they referred.

    I think that the idea of a modern day 'Mary Garden' would be a wonderful addition to a newly consecrated church or other holy place.

  4. I read your post with great interest. Thank you for sharing your knowledge. I do think you should reconsider your statement: "I am not a writer."

  5. How kind of you to say. Thanks for the visit.

  6. A thoroughly enjoyable post Patty. My minor is in Art History and your images bring back fond memories of combing over art slides! Lovely.

  7. What a wonderful concept!!! I've always thought of the creation of a garden as an act of love towards the person who keeps it alive - God!! Great blog!!! LOVE the theme!!!


My apologies, at this time comments are closed.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.