Sunday, October 31, 2010

Sister Maria Celeste, Italy

Born Virginia Gamba (1600-1634), she was the daughter to Galilieo Galilei the famous Italian scientist who proved that the Earth revolved around the sun. Virginia was the eldest of her siblings sister Livia and her brother Vincezio. The three were all born out of wedlock by Maria Gamba, the life and love of Galileo. The girls were considered unmarriageable by Galileo since he never married their mother. When Virginia turned thirteen years of age Galileo decided to send both girls to the nearest convent, just south of their home in Florence, the Convent of San Matteo in Arcentri. There they both lived out their lives in extreme poverty and seclusion. Maria Celeste died from dysentry at the age of 33.

The Convent of San Matteo belonged to The Order of Saint Clare which was established by Saints Clare of Assissi and Francis of Assissi. The Clares, or Poor Clares dedicated themselves to the strict principles of Saint Francis, never able to leave the grounds of the convent and living in extreme poverty far severer than that of any female order of the time. There, their hair was cut round and they wore rough habits of dark brown with black linen veil and knotted cordbelt. They were always barefoot, slept on wood boards covered with a straw mattress, and were seemingly always fasting and praying. Viginia named herself Maria Celeste honouring both the Virgin Mary and her father with her name.

Maria Celeste proved to be an industrious woman for she had little free time to herself. The day was spent cleaning, cooking, and producing articles for sale on the outside such as fine embroidered handkerchiefs, lace, herbal medicines and bread in the summer when it was too hot for most other people to bother. She directed the choir and taught the novices to sing the Gregorian chant. In her few spare moments at the end of the day she wrote letters to her father. In these letters she enquired after his experiments and his poor health. 

Maria Celeste

The convent did have a farm that was tended by outside labor. They grew wheat, millet and other grains, grape for wine and kept some animals. It is not clear if there was an orchard but fruit trees were grown around a central well at the back of the church. There they grew pears, plums, quince, almond trees, pine trees and olive trees. Rosebushes were plentiful and said to bloom even at Christmas.

At the convent apothecary Maria Celeste assisted the visiting doctor by fabricating remedies in pill or tonic form and nursed the sick nuns. Rosemary was grown for nausea, rhubarb was dried and used as a laxative, and rue to staunch a bloody nose or to drink with wine for headaches. A syrup made of rosebuds was used as a purgative: 'prepared from several hundred roses, picked when the buds were half open, then steeped a full day and night in sugar and hot water.'

Galileo's own garden grew lettuce, bitter oranges, portuguese oranges, lemons, grapes for wine (which was made on the premises). There were white beans, chickpeas, broad beans, capers, plums, pears, an orange tree in a pot, a mule for transportation and a dovecote.

Galileo and his daughter Maria Celeste lives were intertwined in inumerable ways and linked by letters. If you are interested in knowing more please read the book Galileo's Daughter by Dava Sobel for a fascinating look at both their lives. 

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Garden in a Nunnery, Part 2 Hildegard von Bingen

Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179) Germany

Much has been written about this remarkable woman. She has been and continues to be studied by scholars in diverse fields that include spirituality, theology, music, medicine, herbalism, and illumination (illustration). She was also a visionary and prophet. Hildegard had the intellect and the opportunity to address her numerous talents to all these fields. I will attempt to give you some idea of her life with an emphasis on her interest in medicine and herbalism.

 Hildegard was the 10th child born to a noble family. Traditionally the 10th child is given to the church as tithe, and so at the age of 8 Hildegard was sent to the Benedictine monastery of Disibodenburg in Bingen for her religious upbringing (this was a double monastery with male and female sections). There she was entrusted to the anchoress Jutta for her education.

From a very young age it had been apparent that Hildegard had prophetic visions. These were often recorded by Jutta and later by a scribe Volmar. Today, it is suggested that the visions were caused by migraines. 

Hildegard refered to Jutta as an "unlearned woman" and while Jutta taught the young girl to read and write Hildegard may have taken it upon herself to educate herself. The Benedictines believed that both men and women should have access to learning. They followed a tradition of community where all members were expected to participate in prayer, reading and work. Music was part of their lives as was the making and illustrating of manuscripts. This lifestyle would have been the greatest influence on a young Hildegard.
Upon the death of Jutta, Hildegard then 38, was named Prioress by her fellow sisters. Hildegard moved the convent from Bingen to the St. Rupertsberg monastery in 1150. In 1165 she founded a second convent in Eibingen. 

A major turning point in her life took place at the age of 42 when she received a vision from God (as they all were) to begin writing down her visions.

Opening lines of Causae et Curae
In her lifetime she wrote between 70 and 80 musical compositions, 72 songs, 70 poems, 100 letters and 9 books. Hildegard wrote 2 books on medicine, Physica and Causae et Curae. Physica, written in nine parts, describes the characteristics of elements, birds, fish, mammals, reptiles, trees and plants, and precious stones and metals. It details the medicinal uses of more than 200 herbs and plants with some descriptions for identification. Causae et Curae combines the mystical beliefs of the time with early German folklore and Hildegard's own herbal experience. It lists more than 200 diseases with information on their causes, symptoms and treatments. In this same book Hildegard also lists 300 plants, with medical and physiological theory as well as herbal treatments. While both books list herbal treatments, the latter includes actual proportions for the ingredients in the recipe. 

It is believed Hildegard would have read and used older texts on medieval herbs, and presumably worked in the gardens at Disibodenberg and St. Rupertsberg. It is not known if she practiced medicine, but she was well known for her cures, both supernatural and natural. Some are still used today. These two books would have been written for use by the nuns of the convent. Their use would not only be of immense benefit to sick or ailing nuns and monks, but would also provide medical aid to travelers and the people of nearby communities who turned to the monasteries for help.

There are many books and websites devoted to her for those of you who want to delve deeper into certain aspects of her life. This is I'm afraid, only a tiny sliver of the information on Hildegard of Bingen.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Garden in a Nunnery, Part 2 Radegund of Poitiers

Radegund of Poitiers, France

Radegund of Poitiers was one of the first Frankish women who founded and ruled over nunneries in France. Her life reads like a soap opera. Born around the year of 520, Radegund was the daughter of a Thuringian King, Berthaire. While just a child, her father was murdered by his brother, Hermanfred, who took Radegund and her brother to raise as his own. But in 531 the Franks invaded Thuringia and defeated and destroyed the Thuringian royal family. The children were captured by the invading Frankish King Clothaire I, who claimed them as spoils of war. Radegund lived with Clothaire in Athies when at the age of 18 he moved her to Soissons to be his queen. She did not want to marry this brute Clothaire but eventually consented to marry him in 540, while apparently goading the man to fury with her austere and devout way of life. She used her revenues from land she received from her wedding to found hospices and was involved in much charitable work on behalf of the poor.

Ten years later, Clothaire murdered Radegund's brother, the last surviving male of the royal family. Radegund fled Clothaire's court, went to Noyon where she managed to be consecrated as a deaconess and eventually made her way to Poitiers. Clothaire tried many times to reclaim his devout wife but failed as now she had the power of the church behind her. In 561 Clothaire died, releasing Radegund from any claims.
During these years Radegund founded the Convent of Our Lady of Poitiers. She laid down the Caesarian Rule in the convent which is that once cloistered, a nun can never ever leave the convent. She further stipulated that the sisters must be able to read and write in addition to the other female tasks of weaving and needlework.
She must have been a powerful woman or perhaps one with a gilded tongue as next she petitioned the Byzantine Emperor for relics from the Holy Land to sanctify her convent. Over time she received the little finger belonging to St. Mamas of Caesarea and a fragment of the True Cross, a large piece of wood from the cross upon which Jesus was crucified. Radegund renamed the convent the Abbey of the Holy Cross, and it became a destination of pilgrimages throughout Frankish lands. Having accomplished so much Radegund removed herself from the day to day goings-on in the convent, and isolated herself in a walled-up cell where she devoted herself to prayer and meditation. She died on August 13, 587.

Now what does she have to do with gardens or flowers? Well Radegund loved to decorate the church altar with flowers, and 'a profusion' of flowers at that. A great friend of hers was the poet Venantius Fortunatus and he wrote many flowery poems of love to her. He claimed that at one dinner he shared with Radegund at the convent, the table was barely visible as it was strewn with roses, greenery, and flowers.
Violets were sent along with this poem to Radegund :

'If the time of year had given me white lilies,
or had offered me roses laden with perfume,
I had culled them as usual in the open or in the ground of my small garden,
and had sent them, small gifts to great ladies.
But since I am short of the first and wanting in the second, 
he who offers violets must in love be held to bring roses. 
Among the odorous herbs which I send,
these purple violets have a nobleness of their own. 
They shine tinted with purple which is regal, 
and unite in their petals both perfume and beauty.
What they represent may you both exemplify,
that by association a transient gift may gain lasting worth.'

The Garden in a Nunnery, Part 1

"Come, I'll dispose of thee among a sisterhood of holy nuns".
Romeo and Juliet.

Monasteries have been around in many forms. In the East men attracted by the hermits life preferred living in isolated cells (room) to the cloistered community. Early monks depended on the alms collected to survive. If these were insufficient then there would have been a need for a garden. Western monasteries appear to have always been cloistered as a community. Gardens were always part of the plan.

Some of the earliest gardens were found in monasteries all throughout Europe. The monastic gardens served many purposes.  Food for the table, flowers for the altar and herbs for the sick were all grown within the walled grounds of the monastery. Most importantly, from an historic view, was that these gardens along with the techniques of gardening were preserved for the future.  The medieval period ranged from approximately 500 -1500 AD. It was a time of war and a time of crusades. Without the monastic gardens the art of gardening would certainly have been lost to ruin and neglect.  

Most monastic gardens were laid out following the lines of the Roman villa. It formed an atrium and peristyle , surrounded by a colonnade –  this enclosed area was renamed the cloister. Cloisters were sanctuaries where the good and wicked could flee and be safe. In time the simple courtyards grew into extensive buildings and enclosures. Then the outdoors would be divided into four areas; the physic garden, a cloister garth (garden), a vegetable garden and an orchard. The cloister was divided into four parts by paths that intersected in the middle and marked by a fountain, well, or sometimes a tree. The number four had a number of meanings here as it does in Islamic gardens: the four rivers of paradise, the four cardinal virtues, the four evangelists. 

 The medieval period is when monasteries and nunneries were at their highest numbers in the west. Nunneries differed from monasteries in that the women or young girls who joined them were always from noble and wealthy families. The poor needed to keep their girls home to help with the family and house. Nuns also, were never permitted to leave the convent. They were expected to lead a life that strictly followed their vows of chastity, obedience and poverty.

Areas of work attached to the garden include the work of the cellaress (food), sacrist  (for the church flowers and candles), and the infirmaress (hospital). Convent food primarily came from their own resources; the vegetable/kitchen garden, the orchard and a farm. The kitchen garden, orchard and farm was managed by the cellaress and provided most of the bread, meat, vegetables and beer or wine, as well as some dairy produce. Typical crops of the kitchen garden were turnips, parsnips, onions, leeks, various legumes, mint, basil, wormwood, borage, mugwort, nettle and melons.  Fruit trees were grown in the orchard such as pears, apples and cherries, figs and grapes for wine. Whatever else that was lacking was purchased.

 The herbularis or physic garden grew, among others, sage, rue, aloe, rosemary, southernwood, poppy, mint and pennyroyal, parsley, gladioli and marigolds. The infermaress took care of the ailing nuns and was able to make salves, potions, ointments, and pills. Women were not allowed to be physicians and so a male doctor was always brought in when a nun needed greater care. 

The sacrist was in charge of the care of the chapel and flowers were frequently used as offerings and adornment. Flowers grown for the church included roses, lilies, asters, primroses, violets, carnations, marigolds and many others.

The life of the nun is extremely interesting. I would love to keep writing about their lifestyle but instead I will tell you about three nuns from different time periods in part 2 of  The Garden in a Nunnery.

Get thee to a nunn'ry, why woulds't thou be a breeder of

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Hortus Conclusus

I am continuing the theme of the Virgin Mary and the garden because I feel that the idea of the hortus conclusus should not be left out.

The hortus conclusus is a particular type of enclosed garden in the sense that it is tied symbolically to the Virgin Mary. While the hortus conclusus takes the form of a garden in Medieval and Renaissance art it is actually a representation of the Virgin Mary. And yet many of its actual physical attributes are taken from even earlier centuries of garden making. When we look far back to the earliest Oriental gardens of Persia, Egypt, Babylon and Mesopotamia we see walled gardens filled with fruit trees, flowers, water and places to sit. Medieval Europe took these traditions and transformed them to their ways and will.

After the fall of Rome, medieval Europe (500-1500 AD) was a place of transition. It was a time when kings were fighting wars against other rival kings and a time of crusades. Castles and monasteries were built high on hills or mountains and walls were erected to protect against invaders. Erecting barriers became part of the  psyche with the result that virtually all gardens were protected not only against invading armies but also against thieves and marauding livestock.  Monasteries also followed this layout and it is known as the cloister (from Latin  claustrum, "enclosure"). With the number of monasteries at their highest during the medieval period it is significant that the origin of the cult of the virgin and the increase of devotion to Mary may have spurred the revival of the idea of the hortus conclusus

Note Eve with the Tree of Life in the center

"Hortus conclusus soror mea, sponsa, hortus conclusus, fons signatus"

"A garden enclosed is my sister, my spouse; a garden enclosed, a fountain sealed up"

These now famous lines are from the Song of Solomon. Written by King Solomon as a nuptial song for his bride, and quite the sexy one at that, it is a dialogue between bride and bridegroom using the garden as metaphor. In Europe, during the medieval times the main religion was Christianity and they believed the Song of Solomon to be an allegory of the union between the church and Christ. Other religions have found their own interpretations or allegories in the poem. Often, though, the allegory is, the lover is God, the beloved is the Virgin Mary. 

Purity, or the pure woman, is what it seems to distill down to. In paintings of the Virgin Mary it is she that symbolizes purity surrounded by her chastity belt or the wall. The garden is of no actual import other than perhaps from a religious view as a paradise, and one she can not leave.
For the medieval woman the enclosed garden was designed to be her chastity belt. Purity of the bloodlines was a great concern for the medieval husband. When kings and lords left home to go to battle they wanted to feel assured that upon their return their queen or wife remained inaccessible to rapists or even suitors, and shut their women up as tightly as they could. In this way, she could enjoy the outdoors and all that nature offers in the confines of the garden and remain pure in the eyes of her father or husband. As for the suitors, that is another story.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Flora, Goddess of Flowers

OK, so she is not a real person but Flora certainly had an influence in early Greek and Roman societies and later in the art world. But already I must partially retract the words that Flora was not a real person, because there seems to be some disagreement on this point. The Romans said that Flora was a woman of pleasure, wealthy due to her trade, and left her wealth to the Roman senate on the proviso that the money was used to celebrate her birthday. The seemingly embarrassed senators agreed to this donation (could it be because they were clients?), gave Flora the title of goddess and thereafter held the Floralia on her birthday.
True or not it makes a great story.

Flora is the Roman goddess of flowers but at one time also over fruit trees, vines and cereals. Her name comes from the Latin floris, meaning flower and her season is that of spring. It is known that Flora was honoured by the Sabines an old Italic tribe of the Appennines before the founding of Rome. The Italic people celebrated her as a fertility goddess. It is also known that a statue of Flora existed in Greece where she was worshiped (and known as Chloris), prior to the time of Roman worship. It was believed Flora could avert rust, a fungal disease of plants that causes orange growths the colour of iron, that is a particular problem for wheat.

The Floralia was a public religious festival to honour the goodwill of Flora. Created in the 6th century BC by the Romans, it took place in spring and lasted six days, the last three days of April and the first three days of May. The festival consisted of games and theatrical performances. Chariot races and circus games took place and everywhere were the symbols of Flora. It was traditional to have goats and hares running around. As well, flowers of lupines, bean flowers and vetch were scattered about. The Romans walked around holding bouquets of flowers or wore wreaths of flowers around their neck or in their hair. The theatrical performances were known to be 'lewd' or 'bawdy' and it was not at all unusual for prostitutes (who were devoted to Flora) to remove their clothing when called upon. It looked to be quite the wild party.

From Roman times through to the Renaissance Flora became equally known for her ties to the natural world as for her ties to prostitution and lewd self display. In paintings she would be portrayed either as the goddess of spring surrounded by plants and flowers with the emphasis on nature and abundance, or in contrast, an emphasis on nutrition, reproduction, and a recreational paradise.

Today her name is used botanically. By the eighteenth century the goddess of flowers metamorphosed into a scientific term. 'Flora' no longer represents flowers but "the plants of a particular region or period, listed by species and considered as a whole." (see dictionary) Kind of sad.

If you are interested in one of Flora's counterparts check out my post on Pomona, the goddess of fruiting trees and orchards here.