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

Saturday, September 18, 2010

The Ancient Egyptian garden

   The Ancient Egyptian garden goes back to 2800 BC. It was formal in structure. Attached to the house was the portico, a covered porch that could be supported by pillars. The portico connected the house to the outdoors and the garden. In the center of the garden was a pool, either rectangular, oblong or T-shaped. Around the pool could be trees of fig, palm, sycamore, pomegranate, nut trees and jujube. Sometimes arbours of grapevines circled the outer edges of the garden. Flowers would be grown in beds or in pots lining walkways to the house. Flower beds tended to be in solid colours and contained cornflowers, poppies, papyrus, daisies, mandrakes, roses, irises, myrtle, jasmine, mignonettes, convolvulus, celosia, narcissus, ivy, lychnis, sweet marjoram, henna, bay laurel and small yellow chrysanthemums. Typically the garden would be enclosed by walls.


Not everyone enjoyed a garden. It seems gardens were for the officials and for the temples. The house or temple was usually built on a hill not too far from the Nile in order to be able to provide irrigation. Temples were places of divinity and different temples prayed to different gods, each symbolized by a sacred tree. Temple gardens could be quite large and in fact some would be considered arboretums by today's standards. Flowers were also grown and used extensively in temples as offerings to the gods in the form of wreaths and  oils for perfume.

Egyptian society was hierarchical and divided into many social classes. Those in higher classes always enjoyed more benefits than those below them, however all people within a class were treated equally.  Egyptian women had more rights and freedoms than the Greeks and Romans. Women could work along side their spouses in business and certain professions were open to them such as, dancing, music, mourning, midwifery and the priesthood. Women were equal in the eyes of the law and could own, manage and receive property, including slaves who were considered property. Marriage for Egyptian women was usually arranged, with a contract, that could be broken with a divorce. Most of the laborers were slaves (the lowest class) and the majority of slaves were women. They could be found doing many types of work, farming and household work included.

The wife was head mistress of the house and she made all decisions in regards to it. She had influence over the plantings in the garden and ensured the necessary plants were grown for medicinal purposes as well as, growing flowers to decorate and perfume the house. In small homes the wife would work in the garden with perhaps a female slave. Gardeners in large estates were men, women and children. They kept the gardens cultivated and made garlands and wreaths to be used in festivals and for worship. For them as it is for us, the garden was a place to find quiet and privacy, shade from the heat of the day, a place for entertaining guests and a place for the family to be together.




Egyptian tidbit:

* Roof gardens were already in existence at this time, as was topiary. 
* Imported flowers (!) included the rose, anemone, poppy, thistle, reed, chrysanthemum and cornflower.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Hanging Gardens of Babylon

   Considered one of the Seven Wonders of the World, the Hanging Gardens are still a mystery today. The story goes, around 600 BC, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon (now modern day Iraq) created these wondrous gardens to appease his new homesick wife the Princess Amytis of Persia (now northern Iran). She missed the green hills of her homeland and the King who was considered to be a great builder of his time, thought nothing about building lush green gardens for her. Now that's love. The garden was terraced with arched vaults and stood 75 feet high (22.5 M) and 100 feet square (30 M). It was built of stone and brick and was capable of growing large trees. A well with conduits provided the irrigation.

One of many suggested looks to the Hanging Gardens of Babylon   
Unfortunately the evidence of its existence is poor. The gardens may have been the creation of a later King Sennacherib or of an earlier king for his Persian courtesan.

The typical garden of this time period for Babylon, Assyria and Egypt was laid out in a formal manner. The gardens were usually walled with a fountain or a pool in the center. From the pool the garden was divided into four quadrants. This pattern shows up over and over through out history and is extremely important to the Arab cultures. In each quadrant a tree would be planted and around the garden edge trees would be planted regularly spaced along with arbours holding grape vines. Flower gardens were planted near the house and this is where we are first to find a woman's influence in the garden. The gardens were cool and shady places for the family to relax and dine al fresco. 

The palm tree held enormous importance for these people. Beside the obvious shade it provided trees did not grow easily in these arid countries. Water was always a concern and getting water to the gardens was utmost on their minds. The palm or date palm  gave timber, its fruit gave milk, from its sap wine, from its syrup sugar. Its tender tips were cooked for a vegetable and its fruit was a staple in the national diet.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Maria Sibylla Merian, illustrator and naturalist

A few summers ago I was in New York city enjoying the artwork of the Frick Museum. I always like to check out the museum store afterward and this time I came upon a small book of illustrations by Maria Sibylla Merian titled Insects & Flowers. A wonderful little book with large and colourful illustrations of exotic flowers surrounded by creepy crawlers of all sorts. I had to have it. Little did I know that this Renaissance artist had regained popularity in the last few decades. Her story is one you will admire.

Maria Sibylla Merian (1647–1717) was born in Frankfurt Germany. Her father, Matthias Merian, was an accomplished printer and engraver known for his scientific illustrations. With his death a few years after Maria's birth, her mother married Jacob Marrel a still life painter, engraver and art dealer. With such a background it is not surprising that Maria would become an artist as well. At the age of thirteen she was capturing caterpillars and drawing them in a journal. She wrote,"In my youth, I spent my time investigating insects. At the beginning, I started with silk worms in my home town of Frankfurt. I realised that other caterpillars produced beautiful butterflies or moths, and that silk worms did the same. This led me to collect all the caterpillars I could find in order to see how they changed."  It is this beginning that would revolutionize the science of zoology and the art of illustrating it.
Drawing was always part of her early years along with the interest in nature. Maria married Johann Andreas Graff, her stepfather's apprentice, and they had two daughters, Johanna Helena and Dorthea Maria. Maria continued painting and worked on embroidery patterns. These 'models' for embroidery were published in her first book Flowerbook. Her sketchbook was later published in 1675 at the age of 28 under the title Neues Blumenbuch -- New book of flowers. The following year she published a book on the life of the caterpillar and it's food sources called Der Raupen wunderbare Verwandlung und sonderbare Blumennahrung -- The Caterpillar, Marvelous Transformation and Strange Floral Food.
Her family life appeared to have suffered as she left her husband and moved her children and mother to a religious commune the Labadists. This was short lived and eight years later moved to Amsterdam. Maria did divorce her husband, which in these times is an event of note, but shortly thereafter embarked on a journey that for a woman seemed next to impossible.


In 1699, at the age of 52, Maria Sibylla Merian and her daughter Dorthea, by then an accomplished artist herself, boarded a ship and left for Suriname, a Dutch colony in South America. For the next two years the ladies traveled through the rain forest collecting, drawing and painting plants and animals. It is not clear how they paid for this trip (I have found contradictory stories). Male explorers were usually sent by Kings or other wealthy patrons, but this does not seem to be the case here. Maria and daughter were assisted by African and Amerindian slaves from the Dutch plantations. Maria certainly made an effort to understand the people she was encountering as it is noted she learned Carib, the language of the local Amerindians, and Negerengels (Black English) the Dutch name for the creole dialect of the African slaves. While accustomed to owning slaves herself, Maria was upset over some of the harsh treatment she witnessed and was vocal with her opinions.
Upon the return from Suriname, she published the book that would give her some renown in the scientific world. Metamorphosis of the Insects of Suriname was published in 1705 and contained sixty full-paged engraved plates. Each plate was accompanied by a description of the plant and animal and labeled in Latin and native names. She also documented the traditional use and preparation of various plant and animals for food and medicine as witnessed on her trip from the South American women she met.
The book brought her acclaim and some financial success. It had its detractors though. Some colonial officials did not like her comments on the treatment of slaves and nineteenth century naturalists made the case that her illustrations of bird eating spiders was pure fantasy - this was later dis-proven. On a positive note and much more important, her work was cited over one hundred times by Carl Linnaeus (Sweden 1701-1778), considered the father of modern zoological classification.




Today she is receiving the acclaim she deserves. Strangely, or not, her face was put on the German stamp before the euro was brought in, her name is attached to a modern research vessel, her books have all been reprinted, schools are named after her and her illustrations after being purchased by Peter the Great Csar of Russia, can still be seen in a museum in St. Petersburg.


Friday, September 3, 2010

Down but never out

My desire to look further into the role of women in the garden came about while reading the book 'Green Thoughts, a writer in the garden' by Eleanor Perenyi. A gardener and a writer, she had  definite ideas and opinions on the status of women not just in the garden but through history. Once one starts to research this area it becomes abundantly clear quickly that women were encouraged to enjoy pretty flowers to keep them out of man's way and his domains. Both Eleanor and I are 'modern' women (she died in 2009 at the age of 91) which makes it difficult at times to look at this history and keep it in context, especially since our modern selves continue to bounce our heads off the Plexiglas ceiling.

Eleanor says women were the first horticulturists. While the men hunted the women searched the land for plants that could be used for medicinal purposes and those that were edible. This information was passed down through the generations and continues to be of immense value today (consider pharmaceuticals and the health trade). With the decline of the hunt men took over this role and gave women the jobs they did not want to do themselves. And so it began.
Without a doubt, the male sex is at the forefront of garden history, but there are wonderful stories of the women standing behind or beside them. It is these women I want to highlight. The idea of what a garden is has changed over time. Their use and their structure has evolved or mutated (take your pick)  and differs from place to place, country to country, era to era. Somehow I am going to wade through this and bring it to you.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Madame de Pompadour

   Why start with the Madame, you are thinking. Reasonable question of course. The Madame has been on my mind since a certain history class in high school. I had a wonderful teacher, a woman whose name is long forgotten, who taught me french and history. She gave details to people and events I could never have realized were so important. Like when Marie Antoinette was to be sent to the guillotine, the night before her hair turned white! Imagine what that says to a ten or eleven year old. One day she told us of  Madame de Pompadour, the mistress of Louis the XV King of France. I am sure there was some important information said that day but all I remembered was that Madame loved flowers and had hundreds of them made by the French porcelain company Vincennes. She put them in vases, on tables, in the garden and amazingly sprayed them with perfume so they would smell like the actual flowers themselves ! I was riveted by this thought for many years. I always wondered if this story was true. It is only now because of the internet, with all its information and books available online to read that I was finally able to confirm the story of Madame and her porcelain flowers.



   Madame de Pompadour, also known as the marquise de Pompadour, is not known for her porcelain flowers. Most people may know she was mistress to a king, or that the pink of Sevres porcelain is called la rose de Pompadour and that the Pompadour hairstyle and the Pompadour heels are named after her.

The Madame did love flowers, and as a sign of the times was totally enchanted with exotics. This was a time when expeditions were made to other countries to search for and procure new and wondrous plant material and to bring it back home. Once home large portions usually ended up in the greenhouses of kings and queens where their gardeners would try to keep the plants alive and with hope propagate them. Her favorites were white flowered exotics, in particular the highly scented jasmines and gardenias.

I do not know if she gardened. I doubt it. She was intelligent, beautiful and musically talented. She came from a wealthy family and ended up in the French court. She had great influence over Louis XV and it seems to have been a benefit for France. She planned the buildings of Le Petit Trianon and Place de la Concorde. She was responsible for the development of the porcelain factory Sevres (originally Vincennes), one of the most famous in Europe. It was at Vincennes that the porcelain flowers were made and interestingly by the wives of the workmen. They were made to look as real as possible. Madame de Pompadour is known to have purchased some in 1748 at the cost of 3,000 livres. There is a story that Madame once received the king in a room filled with porcelain flowers in bloom that emitted wondrous perfume. The story relates that the king was surprised, deceived, and delighted at the spectacle; but it is probable that the surprise was feigned, since another story, also exaggerated, but founded on fact, says that the king once ordered porcelain flowers,chiefly for the marquise and the Chateau of Belle Vue, of the amount of eight hundred thousand livres.

That is my story of Madame de Pompadour. 

Porcelain flowers from Vincennes - photo from John Whitehead works of art