Ancient people articulated and made sense of their lives through the powerful use of symbols. We sometimes forget that Christianity, while creating its unique symbols, absorbed such symbols always adding the dimension of faith.
In Christian symbolism the essence of the flower-its growing characteristics, its shape, color, its scent-coordinate to make a unified whole. Often flowers and fruits may be purely decorative. When they figure prominently in a work, embellish the borders of a painting, book of hours, pulpits or statuary they usually make a symbolic reference.
Here is Memling’s exquisite still life. A small Italian majolica vase stands on an Oriental carpet in a niche. It holds a bouquet of lilies, irises and columbines, symbolizing Mary’s virginity, her suffering and Christ’s birth and death. The vase also bears Christ’s monogram. This flower piece not only argues in favor of a central panel depicting a Virgin and Child, it must also be viewed as a kind of emblem of the donor’s personal Christian vocation.
In this detail of the Bardi Altarpiece Mary is depicted enthroned in an arbour niche . The detailed fashioning of the meadow flowers and the plants in the arbor niche call to mind Primavera, which Botticelli painted at almost the same time, clearly indicating the temporal proximity of the two works. The flowers represent a eulogy in symbolic form of the Mother of God, the significance allotted each of them being explained by means of thin banderoles attached to the individual plants. With reference to the roses which fill the bowls on the back-rest of the throne bench, for example, we may read, “Like a rose-tree in Jericho”; the olive branches in the copper vases behind them bear the comparison, “Like a beautiful olive tree in an open field”.
This large triptych is the most important work of the Flemish artist Hugo van der Goes. The triptych had an enormous impact, noticeably influencing the art of manuscript illustration in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries.
In contrast to the grey Flemish December seen in the background, two vases in the center of the composition are full of summer flowers, out of the seasonal rhythm because of their symbolic power.
Various meaning have been given to this scene. The sheaf of wheat in the foreground(which recalls Bethlehem, “the house of bread”), probably alludes to the Eucharist and the Passion. The wheat refers to the Last Supper, where Christ broke the bread. The vine leaves and grapes on the vase relate to the wine.
The orange lilies refer to the Passion (the red carnations symbolize the bloodied nails of Christ’s cross.) The columbine, because of its association with the Latin word for dove, columba is seen, at times, to represent the gifts of the Holy Spirit because there are seven flowers on each stalk. White irises can symbolize purity but they are also called a ‘sword lily’ after the shape of its leaf, so it may symbolize the Seven Sorrows of Mary especially when joined with the purple irises and the number of its flowers being seven.Thus, taken as a whole, this scene of Christ’s Nativity prefigures the later Salvation which he achieves through his death.
Further Imagery and Legend
The three types of flora and fauna, the lilies, the columbine stalks and the
sheaf of wheat in addition to the three panels of the altarpiece relates to the
holy trinity and four was the number which was the number of man (that is man
had four limbs, elements, seasons and stages of life). Further symbolism of the
number seven relating to the columbine stalks are the seven sacraments, seven
sins, seven virtues and also seven symbolised an eternal joining of man and God.
Hortus conclusus is the archetype of an enclosed garden. A walled garden, one with a fenced enclosure, became synonymous with the term “garden” in medieval times. In Roman Catholic Mariology the source of inspiration for Marian garden iconography is based on the quotation from the Song of Songs which reads,”Soror mea sponsa; hortus conclusus, fons signatus,” or “my sister, my spouse, is a garden enclosed, a garden enclosed, a fountain sealed up.”Aadditionally in Verse 4:11 it is written: ” “Thou art all fair, my love; there is no spot in thee.” These short verses have inspired visual symbols of Mary as vehicle of the Incarnation. She is the perpetual virgin, garden of everlasting life and source of nourishment for that life, and exemplar of the feminine ideal in medieval Christian imaginations. Hortus conclusus imagery was the beautiful windfall of preaching and literature in northern Western Europe, including the cities along the Rhine River in the German Empire and in the Low Countries, and its contribution as a symbol of the Virgin Mary has prevailed throughout the ages.
The Virgin Mary sits on the flowery Mass of the Hortus Conclusus, the enclosed garden of Paradise. The wall is fortified turning Mary into a fortress of virginity. The flowers on the lawn, the white and red roses around the Virgin’s head and the red rose she is giving to the Christ-child are common symbols of her virginity as already mentioned. In the Cologne tradition small blue angels crown her as the Queen of Heaven. Mary is flanked on either side by St. John the Evangelist and Saint Paul.
One of my favorite, and I might add most crowded images, of the Hortus Conclusus, is done by a called Rhenish Master of the Garden of Paradise. Twenty-four plants and twelve species of birds are accurately represented here.
Here again is the Virgin Mary and her child in the company of male and female saints. This is a secluded corner of a castle garden. A peaceful place protected by a wall from the violent outer world.but now within a bordered garden symbolizing again Mary’s virginity and purity.
The Saints comport themselves to the left. Some identify St. Dorothy to the left picking cherries from a trees with a twisted trunk. Cherries are sometimes called “the fruit of paradise’, and it is often seen with the Virgin and Child as a hint to viewers of eternal reward .
The trees flanking the scene represent the Tree of Life—with a twisted trunk to suggest the serpent—to the left, and the Tree of Knowledge—held by St. Sebastian—to the right. St. Michael has tamed the Satan monkey; St. George’s dragon lies belly up to suggest it has been slain. This may suggest the quotation from Matthew 3:9-10: “Already the ax is laid to the roots of the trees; and every tree that fails to produce good fruit is thrown down and thrown onto the fire.” Michael muses over the symbol of the monkey chained to the tree reflecting man’s lust In summary, the world of evil has been conquered.
This is a world surround by flowers. The garden resembles the popular millefleurs which literally means “thousand flowers” and refers to a background made of many small flowers and plants. Note the foreground of the Garden of Paradise.
While associated with St. Dorothy, they are also an allusion to the blood Christ will set on the cross.
A symbol of the Virgin Mary as expressed in the Song of Songs, 2:1, “I am the rose of Sharon, and the lily of the valley.’
It is also called the “sword lily’ after the shape of its pointed leaves, so it symbolizes the ‘Sorrows of the Virgin Mary.’
I would like to conclude with three very unique images of the Hortus Conclusus garden, and a most familiar one.
Here are two gardens with two meanings.