Friday, September 19, 2008

Jasmine Goes West

Angels offer a basket of jasmine and roses to the Virgin and Child.Jasmine and roses.

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.

—Deirdre Larkin

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Comments (5)

  1. Lucille Gordon Says:

    While I cannot contribute to a discussion about plants and flowers from the medieval period, I can certainly enjoy reading about it. Thank you for an illuminating series.

    I hope that future writings may reveal more about espaliered fruit trees, origins, some idea of how widespread their cultivation may have been and, of course their reflection in art.

    Thank you for this civilized addition.

  2. Deirdre Larkin Says:

    Hello, Lucille—

    We do intend to post some information on medieval orchard fruits this autumn, as the lady apples, pears, medlars and quince in the collection ripen. Although the mature espaliered pear (now more than seventy years old) growing in Bonnefont Cloister is a famous and beloved feature of the garden, true espalier is not a medieval practice. The technique (in which an apple, pear, plum, apricot, or other fruit tree in the Rose family is trained flat against a wall to provide the ripening fruit with additional warmth and light) was developed during the 16th and 17th centuries, a period of innovation and experiment in fruit culture throughout Europe.

  3. Chitra Ragulan Says:

    Hi,

    The photograph of the jasmine flower used in this article, is called ‘ jaadi malli’ in Tamil and grows profusely in South India. The fragrance of this flower is divine and the flower is used as floral offering to the Gods and also as a personal adornment. There are several varieties, one with reddish colour on the outside of the petals and one with an extremely long stamen. The leaves are dark green and it is a climber.

    I personally love the heady fragrance as also the fragrance of the other varieties of the jasmine - ‘gundu malli’, ‘mullai’ iruvakshi’ and others.

  4. Colleen K. Dodt Says:

    We have always grown this on the home. My grown children have always loved Jazzy the big, fragrant friend in the sitting room.

  5. Deirdre Larkin Says:

    Hello, Chitra—

    It would be wonderful to visit a place where jasmine grows profusely and in such variety. I too love the scent. We are about to move the potted jasmines into Cuxa Cloister, which has been glassed-in now that the weather is getting colder, where we can enjoy them for a few weeks more.

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