Friday, December 11, 2009

The Hallowed Yew

Yew Tree in Bonnefont Garden Fruit of the Yew Tree

Above, from left to right: A large yew tree (Taxus baccata) growing near the portcullis on the lower drive of The Cloisters; a detail of the yew in fruit in mid-November. The gelatinous red flesh surrounding the seeds is as sweet as it looks, and is innocuous, but the seed itself is very toxic, as are the leaves.

There is here above the brotherhood
A bright tall glossy yew;
The melodious bell sends out a keen clear note
In St. Columba’s church.

—Fragment of an Irish poem, ca. 800–1000

A famously long-lived tree of ancient significance, the yew (Taxus baccata) has borne both positive and negative connotations. As Geoffrey Grigson notes, yew was beneficent in its character as a protective tree, to be grown in dooryards and churchyards (perhaps because of the red fruit, often a sign of apotropaic power); it was a tree of life, both as an evergreen and because of the great age and stature it could attain. However, yew also had more somber and funereal associations because of its poisonous nature.

In Greco-Roman antiquity, the yew was sacred to the Furies and was a plant of ritual purification; according to both the Roman natural historian Pliny and the poet Ovid, yew was a tree of hell and grew near the entrance to the underworld. Yew was planted on tombs and was associated, like the cypress, with death. It was also a sacred tree of the Celts, planted anciently in the British Isles, where many famous specimens, like the Fortingall Yew, remain.

Christian commentators associated the poisonous fruit with sin and death, but despite this link, yew was used as a Christmas green in Europe. (Like the boxwood that will be the subject of next week’s post, the yew was used not only at Christmas but also on Palm Sunday as a substitute for the exotic palm, which would only have been available in southern Europe.) The Renaissance painter Girolamo dai Libri juxtaposes a yew tree, as a symbol of the Tree of Death, with a pomegranate in flower, signifying the Tree of Life in his Presepe dei Conigli, or Nativity with Rabbits. (An image of this work is available on the website for the Dioceses of Verona, Italy.) Dai Libri also contrasts the Tree of Life and the Tree of Death in the Met’s Madonna and Child with Saints. In this work the Tree of Life is a magnificent bay laurel; the Tree of Death is unidentifiable.

Yew was a useful as well as a symbolic tree. Both its hardness (a post made of yew was said to outlast one made of iron) and its flexibility were exploited in weaponry: Beowulf’s shield was made of yew, and yew was also the wood of choice for the medieval longbow.

—Deirdre Larkin

Sources:

Grigson, Geoffrey. The Englishman’s Flora. London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1955.

Levi D’Ancona, Mirella. The Garden of the Renaissance: Botanical Symbolism in Italian Painting.  Firenze: L. S. Olschki, 1977.

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Comments (4)

  1. Nancy Heraud Says:

    I was always fascinated by the berries as a child. I’m glad I wasn’t so interested in eating them!

  2. Deirdre Larkin Says:

    I think we all were, Nancy. There was something about crushing that soft red berry, and popping out the yellow seed and all that lovely goop. . . I think we probably had been told how dangerous they were, and that gave them a special glamour.

  3. Elly Brauer Says:

    I always used to worry that the berries were going to ‘poison my hands’, as if when playing with them they would somehow poison me by association! Oddly the tree itslef (there was a cloister behind the cathedral I passed on the walk to school as a child and there was three in the courtyard) held more fascination for me than the cathedral itself…

    I don’t know if you feel the same way, but somehow, the Yew seemed to me to be “defiant” of all the other trees and bushes… It stood in a way that suggested a dignity unlike any other, perhaps, only the noble juniper could understand this defiance… And yet the juniper, while loved for it’s tonics, never did yield a post, bowl, walking stick, or bow so magnificent as the Yew…

  4. Deirdre Larkin Says:

    I suspect that most Americans don’t share the sense of the yew’s distinction and power enjoyed in Great Britain and Europe. For us it is a commonplace landscape shrub of city parks and suburban foundation plantings. The ancient churchyard yew, more ancient than the church itself, is not part of our daily lives.

    It is, as you say, an exceptionally wonderful wood as well as an impressive tree. I remember my first encounter with antique furniture made of polished yew. I was awed by its beauty.

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