Left: Angels offer a basket of jasmine and roses to the Madonna and Child; right: detail of a basket of jasmine flowers and single-petaled white roses.
Jasmine’s significance as a symbolic flower blossoms in the art of the Italian Renaissance, where it appears as a symbol of divine love and heavenly happiness. In combination with roses and lilies, which have a much longer iconographic history in Western art, it often appears in representations of the Madonna and Child. Attendant angels offer jasmine to the infant Christ, or are wreathed with crowns of jasmine themselves. (Mirella D’Ancona Levi, The Garden of the Renaissance: Botanical Symbolism in Italian Painting, 1977.)
Although it was grown in the Islamic gardens of southern Europe as early as the twelfth century, jasmine was not established in northern European gardens until the close of the Middle Ages. Jasmine and roses scented the garden walks of the mid-fourteenth-century villa (believed to be the Villa Palmieri, two miles southeast of Florence) described by Bocaccio in the Decameron, but the earliest conclusive proof of jasmine’s presence in France is an illuminated border produced by Jean Bourdichon for the Great Hours of Anne of Brittany, c. 1501–1507. (John Harvey, Medieval Gardens, 1981.) Jasmine is intensively cultivated to this day at Grasse, which has been the center of the French fragrance industry since the Middle Ages. The English herbalist William Turner reported that jasmine grew abundantly in gardens around London by 1548.
Jasmine’s reputation as a medicinal herb preceded its establishment as a garden plant by several centuries. The Latin epithet ‘officinale‘ indicates that it was an ‘officinal‘ herb—a plant stocked in the officina or storeroom of a monastery, where drugs and other necessaries were kept.
A beautiful rendering of the delicate white flowers and pinnate leaves of Jasminum officinale appears in the Tractatus de herbis (British Library, Egerton MS 747, fol. 98). This mid-fourteenth-century herbal is associated with Salerno in southern Italy, where a congregation of Arabic, Christian, and Jewish practitioners constituted the first lay school of medicine in Europe. Although the plant depicted is unquestionably Jasminum officinale, it appears under the name Sambaco, which also belongs to another species of jasmine on our medieval plant list, Jasminum sambacum. There may have been confusion between the two exotic species. According to the fifteenth-century Hortus Sanitatis, sambac, which is often grown as a houseplant today, was good for sinus headaches and other ills caused by an excess of phlegm.