Landscapes of the Past

Images of Medieval Gardens Open Up an Enclosed World of Religious and Secular Meaning

Gardening can be a great way to beautify one’s surroundings, provide a creative outlet, and gain a feeling of accomplishment. Often, landscape architects and gardeners look to gardens of the past for inspiration. Images of medieval gardens serve as important sources, which give the modern viewer insight into specific features. Garden walls, turf benches, fountains, and flowery meads were some of the elements depicted in both religious and secular images in a variety of media such as paintings, tapestries and manuscripts. Both today’s gardener and art historian can look to these works for information regarding the cultivated landscape of the past.

Earliest images of Western-style gardens can be traced back to ancient Egyptian and Minoan civilizations in the form of wall paintings. In Egypt, a tomb painting from 1400 B.C. depicts a garden, which provides refreshment for the soul as it journeys through the afterlife. The simple layout shows high walls to protect from intruders and a formal reflecting pool edged with flowers and flanked by tall trees. This layout appears later in both Islamic and monastic gardens, and seems to be one of the earliest depictions of the hortus conclusus, the enclosed garden.

Later in history, garden images begin to appear in Persian illuminated manuscripts around 1200 A.D. As Islamic forces conquered Persia (present-day Iran), the Persians maintained their strong beliefs in the natural elements and their rich tradition of beautiful gardens. Both Persians and Islamics held the similar belief that heaven, or paradise, was a garden. The Islamic garden was based on a combination of the teachings from the Koran.

Ideologically, the garden provided a sensual experience, a sneak preview of what heaven would be like if one lived according to the Koran. With a physical wall surrounding the garden (hortus conclusus), man could reach a balance between himself and God where he would be removed from the worries of the world and free from distraction. Within the garden walls were four essential elements: running water, cool shade, fragrance and soothing sounds. All of these elements created a contemplative area where one could be at one with God and enrich one’s inner garden – the garden of the soul.

The basic format of the Islamic garden was based on a quadripartite plan where four channels of water met at right angles in the center of the garden, which contained a pool of water. From a practical standpoint, these four channels could provide irrigation to different areas. From a symbolic standpoint, the intersection of the four channels symbolized a person’s center or soul, or the rivers of the world meeting at the center of the universe. Several features from Persian gardens, such as the walled garden, the quadripartite plan, and the emphasis on the four essential elements appear later in the European pleasure gardens of the medieval era.

The present-day gardener knows how helpful it is to have reliable sources to provide information on planting, soil conditions and cultivation techniques. For the gardeners of the Middle Ages, several documents existed which provided source material on gardening. An early document, Capitulare de Villis or Decree Concerning Towns was issued by Charlemagne in 812 AD. The decree specified that all cities within Charlemagne’s empire have gardens with herbs and trees. It specifically listed 16 types of fruit and nut trees and 73 different herbs for diet and medicine. Charlemagne himself was a gardener and was known to have had contact with Abbassid rulers in Baghdad.

Soon after Charlemagne’s death, another document was drawn up which likely used the Capitulare de Villis as a basis for its list of herbs and trees. The St. Gall plan, written by Abbot Haito of Reichenau in 816 A.D., has been preserved in the St. Gall Abbey in Switzerland. The plan illustrates the ideal Benedictine monastery in specific layout of buildings and grounds. The plan calls for several gardens and an orchard. One garden was to be an infirmary garden situated next to the physician’s house; it should contain 16 beds of different herbs for medicinal purposes. A larger kitchen garden would provide vegetables for the monks. The orchard plan specified ornamental fruit and nut trees, similar to those in Charlemagne’s plan, to be planted in the monks’ cemetery. In addition, the plan calls for a cloister garth (courtyard) formatted in similar fashion to the Persian paradise garden – walled with a quadripartite plan that contained a pool of water in the center.

In 1240, the monk Bartholomaeus Anglicus wrote an extensive encyclopedia, De Proprietatibus Rerum, whose 17th volume was devoted entirely to the identification of plants and referred to the word “herber” as a “green place and merry with green trees and herbs.” It is this term, herber, which was used throughout the medieval period to define an enclosed garden that contained a lawn, flowers and herbs.

Besides being significant for its terminology, the encyclopedia was the basis for the next important document: De Vegetabilibus et Plantis, by Albertus Magnus, the German monk, philosopher, scholar and Count of Böllstadt. His treatise included instruction on soil preparation, lawn cultivation, and a detailed description of the herber or pleasure garden.

In addition to the historical documents which provided instructional information, the rise of the monasteries contributed to further development of gardens in Northern Europe. Since monasteries became centers for learning and agricultural development, knowledge of gardening practices grew to include gardens for the wealthy landowners and even those of lesser means.

While monasteries and manors had utilitarian gardens, they also contained pleasure gardens, which were designed for pleasurable pursuits: conversation, amusement, socializing and pleasing the senses. A section from the Magnus treatise describes the pleasure garden designed for the senses: “There are, however, some places of no great utility or fruitfulness but designed for pleasure. They are in fact designed for the delight of two senses, viz. sight and smell. They are therefore provided rather by removing what especially requires cultivation: for the sight is in no way so pleasantly refreshed as by fine and close grass cut short.”

There were actually three different types of pleasure gardens and their sizes and structures were related to social and economic class. The smallest garden, often referred to as an herber, was usually less than one acre in size. It was an enclosed outdoor “room” often designed to be viewed from above as from a bedroom window or tower. A landowner of lesser means, perhaps a member of the newer bourgeois, would own an herber next to his house.

The second type of pleasure garden was called an orchard (although dissimilar from our present-day definition of orchard). Also enclosed, it was usually situated at the back or side of a manor or castle. About one to four acres in size, it contained fragrant ornamental fruit and nut trees, and flower beds. Within the orchard, the trees would provide shady areas for sitting while the lawn provided an area for walking and other pleasurable pursuits such as lawn games and socializing. A wealthier landowner or minor gentry might own both an herber and an orchard which would be adjoining with a fence in between.

The third type was the pleasure park or pleasance. It was a larger piece of property consisting of several acres of land. Sometimes walled, it also contained birds and animals, to be viewed but not hunted. Often the pleasure park contained constructed bodies of water or moats. Members of nobility or royalty would own all three of these types of pleasure gardens.

The herber was an acre or less in size, and square or rectangular in shape. The enclosed area consisted mostly of a lawn with intersecting paths and a spring-fed fountain or pool with channeled conduits, as in the Islamic and cloister gardens. Shade was formed by trees and canopied areas called arbors. These were made of poles of willow or hazel which were bent to form a canopy over a path. Vines were then grown over the tunnel-like structure. Flowers beds were planted along the edges of the garden.

The seats in the gardens were called turf benches. They consisted of brick or plaited wicker constructions filled with dirt with sod and flowers planted on top. Turf seats were often u-shaped or rectangular and were sometimes used as back rests rather than sat upon. A variation of the turf seat consisted of a fenced mound of dirt surrounding the base of a tree. In their treatises, both Magnus and Crescenzi described turf benches as necessary features for pleasure gardens.

A feature that appeared in herbers, orchards and sometimes pleasure parks was the flowery mead, a lawn dotted with wild flowers transplanted from nearby woods and fields. Whereas unadorned lawns were used for games and exercise, meads provided an added decorative element which enhanced the experience for the senses. The fragrance of the flowers and the colorful display added to the pleasurable experience so sought after within the enclosed space.

The illustrations accompanying this article show some of the features of gardens from 15th-century Europe and just may inspire the reader to get outside and build those walls and turf benches.

Laura Miller received her master’s degree in art history from St. Thomas in December 2001. This article was adapted from her paper, “Garden Images of the Fifteenth Century,” which was presented at the International Society of Phenomenology, Aesthetics and the Fine Arts at the Harvard Divinity School in 2000.