Above, from left to right: Detail from The Annunciation (17.190.7); Detail from The Unicorn in Captivity (37.80.6); Trie Cloister Garden in bloom.
???fruit trees that grow easily, such as cherries and apples, should be planted in place of walls; or, what is better, willows or elms or birch trees should be planted there, and their growth should be controlled for several years, both by grafting and by stakes, poles, and ties, so that walls and a roof might be formed from them.
???Book III: “On the Gardens of Kings and other Illustrious Lords.” Piero de’ Crescenzi, Liber ruralium commodorum (1305-09). (See Catena, the Bard Graduate Center’s Digital Archive of Historic Gardens and Landscapes for more information.)
In my undergraduate studies in landscape and architecture, I examined how the natural landscape is used to determine designs for parks, gardens, and public spaces. I took part in several design processes, which included research on site analysis, interviewing potential patrons of public spaces, building models of future designs, and using plants to blend artistic design with nature. I learned to look at the land as a palimpsest rather than a blank slate, and to examine its many layers of use throughout history, understanding that context is an important influence on new designs. Now, as the new assistant horticulturist here at The Cloisters, I’ve found more levels of meaning to my studies, and am inspired to think about design issues from a landscape historian’s perspective.
Today, parks are most often public spaces dedicated to recreational use such as playgrounds, sports fields, or walking trails. In the Middle Ages, on the other hand, parks were generally private areas signifying high social status. They were often used as hunting grounds, or as areas for deer management, animal grazing, woodland management, and timber production.
While medieval parks contained areas for pasture, the majority of the land was dedicated to the recreational activity of hunting, especially for deer. Although medieval parks were put to practical use, they also played a complex social role, and research about royal palaces in the medieval ages indicates that they were carefully designed for aesthetic purposes as well. English kings arranged their estates in such a way that their living places were almost completely surrounded by parks. Attention was given to the placement of the park lodges within the visual approach to the main royal buildings. There were also smaller parks that contributed aesthetically to the spatial relationship between buildings on the property. In the above detail from The Annunciation, we see a common convention: an enclosed garden with a doorway leading into a rolling landscape, perhaps a park. Plants were used not only ornamentally, but also as design features within the gardens, a trend that we still see in landscape architecture today.
A specific example of a hunting park can be seen in The Cloisters’ treasured series of Unicorn Tapestries. The presence of the palace in the backgrounds of the third, fourth, and sixth tapestries tells us that the enclosure was aristocratic, but the plants also provide a wealth of information. They’re are all shown in their true habitats, with the correct type of trees located in the forest and the moisture-loving plants near the water???s edge. Even though the plants are all displayed in their most attractive stage, regardless of the season, their specific inclusion and placement are part of the symbolism in the tapestries??? story.
The pomegranate tree (Punica granatum), featured in several of the tapestries, symbolized the chastity of the Virgin Mary, the union of faith, and peace. The fruit???s red juice represented Christ???s blood, and redemption in a paradise garden. In the seventh tapestry, The Unicorn in Captivity (shown above), the unicorn is enclosed by a fence and chained to a pomegranate tree, signifying the tree’s direct connection to the story???s meaning. (The lush planting of Trie Cloister Garden, shown above, evokes the landscape of medieval millefleurs tapestries like this one.)
As we see in this example, plants were more than just a pleasant physical backdrop in the Middle Ages; they had important symbolic meanings. Landscape was treated as more than just a place to inhabit physically. It was used to create ambience, emotion, and symbolism within a specific setting, or, in this case, work of art.
Cavallo, Adolfo. The Unicorn Tapestries at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1998.
Freeman, Margaret B. The Unicorn Tapestries. New York: E. P. Dutton, Inc., 1956.
Harvey, John. Mediaeval Gardens. Beaverton, OR: Timber Press, 1981.
Liddiard, Robert, ed. The Medieval Park: New Perspectives. London: Windgather Press, 2007.