Monday, March 15, 2010

A Green Place to Rest

Between the level turf and the herbs let there be a higher piece of turf made in the fashion of a seat, suitable for flowers and amenities; the grass in the sun???s path should be planted with trees or vines, whose branches will protect the turf with shade and cast a pleasant refreshing shadow.

???Book VIII, Chapter I: “On small gardens of herbs.” 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.)


Above: Honor Making a Chaplet of Roses, ca. 1425???1450. South Netherlandish. Wool warp, wool wefts; 93 x 108 in. (236.2 x 274.3 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Cloisters Collection, 1959 (59.85). See the Collection Database to learn more about this work of art.

Turf benches were among the most distinctive features of medieval gardens, and are depicted in many paintings and tapestries. Such benches may be rectangular, circular, L-shaped, or U-shaped; the U-shaped type is known as an exedra. Regardless of their shape, the benches were usually constructed with low-walled frames made out of brick, wood, stone, or wattle (woven willow). The frames were then filled with soil and the surfaces were topped with turf. Turf seats were placed in the middle of the garden or against one of its walls, and were sometimes incorporated into the enclosure. Arbors or trellises were sometimes built into the seat to provide shade and shelter, while circular benches were constructed around single trees.

Not all turf benches were constructed within a frame; some had grass growing on all sides, as seen in the tapestry shown above. The same plants and flowers that grow in the lawn are shown growing in the turf of the bench. It’s important to note that although the grass growing on this turf bench looks perfectly even on all sides, it would actually be very difficult to achieve such uniformity, since not all sides would have equal exposure to the sun. It is hard to match the perfection of a painted image when working in three dimensions in a re-created medieval garden.

In medieval depictions, turf benches are usually occupied by the Virgin, or by a pair of lovers. While figures are often shown sitting on the bench, they are sometimes shown seated on the ground, leaning back against the bench. In the example above, the allegorical figure of Lady Honor is seated on the grass in front of a turf exedra.

The simplest form of turf bench, and the easiest one to replicate, is the four-walled rectangular frame with turf growing only on the top of the bench. Such benches are very common in representations of medieval gardens, as in the view through the window in The Annunciation:

Detail of the Garden from the Annunciation

Above: Workshop of Rogier van der Weyden (possibly Hans Memling, active by 1465, died 1494) (Netherlandish, 1399/1400???1464). The Annunciation (detail), 1465???75. Oil on wood; 73 1/4 x 45 1/4 in. (186.1 x 114.9 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan, 1917 (17.190.7). See the Collection Database to learn more about this work of art.

This example is especially interesting because the benches that border the paths serve not just as seating, but also enclose the interior of the garden. Many of the same plants growing on the little flowering lawn in the foreground also grow amid the grass of the bench. The bench near the back wall of the garden is used to display the potted topiaries tended by the woman gardener.

Turf benches are often included in re-created medieval gardens, such as Queen Eleanor???s Garden at Winchester Castle, designed by Dr. Sylvia Landsberg. The garden was named after Eleanor of Provence and her daughter-in-law, Eleanor of Castile. Such a garden would have been used as a private retreat; the turf bench has been fitted into an intimate space that invites conversation and relaxation. The trellis surrounding the turf exedra is covered with red and white roses.

Above: Site of proposed turf bench in Trie garden.

The turf bench is such a distinctive feature of the medieval garden that we would like to construct one here at The Cloisters. There is only one site that seems suitable, and that is at the back of Trie garden. This garden is planted as a single field of herbs and flowers, and is meant to evoke the millefleurs tapestries in the collection??(e.g., the Unicorn in Captivity, and The Lady Honor tapestry itself). A bench framed out of cedar boards faced with wattle and planted with turf and small wildflowers would complement the design of the garden and allow visitors to see an important medieval garden feature.

We are renovating Trie garden this spring, and a space for a turf bench will be included in the new design. I’ll keep you updated as we develop our plans. In the meantime, consult Dr. Landsberg???s book, Medieval Gardens, and try constructing your own medieval turf bench!

???Corey Eilhardt


Harvey, John. Medieval Gardens. Beaverton, Oregon: Timber Press, 1981.

?????????”Sweet Repose.” Journal of the Royal Horticultural Society. 120.10 (1995): 626???628. Print.

Landsberg, Sylvia. Medieval Gardens. London: Thames & Hudson, 1996.

Paul, Martine. “Turf Seats in French Gardens of the Middle Ages (12th???16th centuries).” Journal of Garden History. 5.1 (1985): 3???14. Print.

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Comments (19)

  1. plantette Says:

    Would this bench be usable by the public for sitting? What a wonderful idea!

  2. Jay Chua Says:

    Although no picture posted on the turf benches, I can imagine the tuft benches must look really nice in the garden yard.

    I am particularly interested in how many different forms of design we can play around with turf benches? Hope to see some actual picture & sample next round.

    Jay Chua

  3. katknit Says:

    A few summers ago I had the pleasure of relaxing on the turf bench in Queen Eleanor’s Garden, Winchester Cathedral, England. I look forward to the new one at The Cloisters.

  4. planetplant Says:

    I hope the Cloisters develops its turf bench soon! Any idea on when it might be completed?

  5. Betty B Says:

    Thank you for posting the detail from the Annunciation. Last year I laid the groundwork (literally) for my own small medieval garden and was having trouble visualizing where to put my turf bench. The painting detail has given me inspiration!

    Best of luck with the Cloisters bench - I hope to see it someday.

  6. blue sky Says:

    Thank you for this post. I found it very interesting. Just curious….how comfortable would a turf bench actually be? Would the turf act as a cushion for the wattle frame? Would the turf be moist much of the time?

  7. Corey Eilhardt Says:

    Thank you, everyone, for your interest in medieval turf benches!

    plantette and planetplant - We are planning on renovating Trie garden this spring, and a space will be reserved for the turf bench in the new design. A completion date for the turf bench is not yet scheduled, but we will keep you informed along the way!

    Jay Chua - Although there are several recreated medieval turf benches in existence, there are not many images available online. However, here are some books to look into for images of turf benches in medieval art:
    Landsberg, Sylvia. Medieval Gardens. London: Thames & Hudson, 1996.
    Harvey, John. Medieval Gardens. Beaverton, Oregon: Batsford Ltd., 1981.

    katknit - I would love to know more about your visit to Queen Eleanor’s Garden. Is the public permitted to sit directly on the turf bench?

    Betty B - I am glad that the Annunciation detail gave you inspiration for your own turf bench. Good luck with your medieval garden!

    blue sky - This is a very good question, so thank you for asking it. Garden historians have commented on the comfort level of turf benches, mentioning that the wattle frame might have poked the sitter’s legs and that damp grass might have been less than comfortable.

  8. Julie Jacobsen Says:

    Hi there! Your title intrigued me because I’m an art history major and, of course, I absorb art like a sponge. The premise of your blog is a wonderful idea. Most people when they think of the Middle Ages think of the plague, sorcery, alchemy, The Inquisition and other dreary subjects but that time period is also full of delightful things such as the illuminated manuscripts, garden images and colorfully dressed people. Wow. Too cool.

    Please come visit me at my blog. I’m reviewing art history in a little snippet each day as I think many people are interested but don’t know where to start. I talk about whatever suits my fancy for the day with a great end result for me-reviewing for completion of my major (I’m a senior).

  9. Jay Chua Says:

    Hi Corey,

    Thanks for your reference.

    I looked up from Amazon, and indeed readers gave good comments about the books, especially the 1st book you recommended - “Landsberg, Sylvia. Medieval Gardens. London: Thames & Hudson, 1996.”

    I am going to check out the book this weekend in my nearby bookstore.

    By the way, would love to know how the turf bench design turn out, do keep us posted :) Spring is here, the benches should add more green feeling to the garden.

    Jay Chua

  10. Jack the Landscape & Lighting Guy Says:

    I too would like to see how those turf benches turn out. Never had a thought about something like that before. I love your post. Gives me lots of ideas for my backyard garden designs! Thanks

  11. Eden Says:

    I wonder how you keep people from sitting on the bench right after its been watered? Seems like people could end up with a pretty soggy bottom! But, they are beautiful design features in a garden, ideal frames for plant groupings and interesting stonework.

  12. Alma's Indoor Growing Supplies Says:

    What a fascinating idea! A bench like this could easily work in my tiny garden. I live on the prairies so we don’t get that much rain to make it impractical to sit on. Thank you so much for this post. I grow mostly indoors because of our short growing season.

  13. Mad Progress Says:

    Great article! It just goes to show that people have been building, designing and using backyard gardens as a place to relax for a very l long time. These days with all of the modern accessories one can easily purchase at the local home improvement store it just makes it a whole lot easier to landscape and improve the ambiance of even a small outdoor space.

  14. Romona Weston Says:

    Hi Corey,

    What an excellent article. Read this earlier and went and checked out

    ???Landsberg, Sylvia. Medieval Gardens. London: Thames & Hudson, 1996.??? Excellent!

    With summer here, we could all be enjoying our green spaces more. We actually just did a “deck” makeover with a stainless steel top kitchen cart, a stainless steel grill and a cast iron garden bench. Now I need to ” make” the time to sit and enjoy!

  15. Romona Weston Says:

    What an excellent article. Read this earlier and went and checked out

    ???Landsberg, Sylvia. Medieval Gardens. London: Thames & Hudson, 1996.??? Excellent!

    With summer here, we could all be enjoying our green spaces more. We actually just did a ???deck??? makeover with a stainless steel top kitchen cart, a stainless steel grill and a cast iron garden bench. Now I need to ??? make??? the time to sit and enjoy!

    Romona Weston, Publisher,

  16. Corey Eilhardt Says:

    Romona- I’m very glad to hear you enjoyed the Sylvia Landsberg book. We are still in the process of planning for a turf bench in Trie. We will keep everyone updated as our plans progress!

  17. Kitchen Carts Reviews Says:

    While reading this post, this image came to mind.

    That of a gentleman, taking out his handkerchief. He puts it atop of the turf bench for his lady companion.

    This turf bench will bring many delightful moments and little surprises.

  18. Historic Earthworks for the Playground - Playscapes Says:

    [...] even earlier model is the medieval turf seat (there’s a good historical overview at the Met garden blog), which was sometimes just a shaped area of turf, with or without a seat back, but could also be [...]

  19. Paul Cheetham Says:

    I just can across this blog and thought you might be interested in the following work I am involved with.
    I have expertise in high resolution shallow archaeological geophysics and am working on specialised system for garden archaeology. Anyway, I think I may have discovered archaeological evidence of an ‘octagonal’ turf bench in a Medieval garden in Dorset. The four sides of the possible bench visible make a U with the opening facing SW. A trial excavation showed the remains to consist of a very thin layer of gravel in a band about 0.5m wide located right at the base of the current topsoil. I interpret this layer as originating from stones that were in the soil imported to make a turf bench. The stones then moved down the soil profile due to bioturbation (about 2 cm per year in a worm active soil) down through the bench and the soil below to where I found them, thus leaving a most fragile imprint of the position and shape of the original bench of which nothing now remains. It is noteworthy that conventional geophysical techniques do not see this feature and so there may be many others out there waiting to be found.

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