Monday, November 22, 2010

Among The Lilies

Margaret Freeman, 1938 Unicorn in Captivity: Lilium candidum detail Tracing Lilium pseudo apul (thumbnail)

Above from left to right: Margaret Freeman in her office at The Cloisters in 1938; a large and lovely rendering of Lilium candidum prominently placed in the flowery field below the enclosure of the Unicorn in Captivity; tracing of a woodcut image illustrating the entry for the same species of lily, taken by Freeman from the herbal of Apuleius Platonicus, sometimes known as the Pseudo-Apuleius. The Latin subscription states that this lily was known to the Greeks as “Crinion.”

This is not the lily which today is and tomorrow is cast into the oven; it will blossom for ever.

???Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, Sermon 70 on the Song of Songs, III.6

Margaret B. Freeman was associated with The Metropolitan Museum of Art for fifty-two years, first as a lecturer at the old Cloisters in 1928, then as a curator, and eventually as director of The Cloisters in 1955, succeeding James Rorimer. Charged with the development of the gardens, Ms. Freeman was perhaps the single most important contributor to the list of medieval plants drawn from historical sources, which is still in use here. (The list, which now stands at five hundred species, has been amplified and refined over the course of many years and is still being developed.) She also gave a good deal of time and careful effort to the identification and interpretation of plants in medieval artworks, particularly those in The Cloisters’ collection. We have many penciled notes, transcriptions, and plant lists in her hand, as well as drawings; she would lay tracing paper over a reproduction of a medieval art work, carefully delineate the plants, and label the image with the correct botanical name. Ms. Freeman worked closely with the gardeners and kept careful records of the plantings. All these records were invaluable to Susan Moody, the horticulturist in charge from 1979 until 2007, in her restoration and development of the Gardens, and they are still important to me today.

Today’s is the hundredth post to The Medieval Garden Enclosed, and it seemed fitting to pay tribute to the person who did so much of the groundwork for the cultivation and interpretation of the medieval gardens and their plants here at The Cloisters.??We now??enjoy the use of??tools that allow us??to access??and assimilate information??at a far more rapid rate than in Margaret Freeman’s day, but we continue in her debt.

In “Cloistered Plants” (see abstract), a Talk of the Town piece that appeared in the March 29, 1952, issue of The New Yorker, the reporter visits The Cloisters to be “taken in hand, culturally and horticulturally” by James R. Rorimer and Margaret B. Freeman, and is brought to the Unicorn Tapestries to view woven examples of the plants just seen in the gardens:

“Look at that lovely primrose,” said Miss F. “It’s really a better illustration than the ones you find in the old herbals. And here’s a wonderful weaving of a blackberry bush, all prickly.” . . . “Of the hundred and one different kinds of plants shown in the tapestries, sixteen can’t be identified at all,” Miss Freeman said. “Most of the remaining eighty-five have been definitely identified, but a few are questionable. The pimpernel, for example???or what appears to be a pimpernel???has four petals instead of five.”

Margaret Freeman had published Herbs for the Medieval Household, based on early printed herbals in the Met’s collection, in 1943. Her book The Unicorn Tapestries, published in 1976, after her retirement, includes a chapter on “The Groves, the Flowery Fields, and the Gardens.” The notes in her hand seen below formed the basis of her explication of the uses and significances of the white lily published in that chapter.

M. Freeman Note on Identification of Lily M. Freeman Transcription from Hugh of St. Victor M. Freeman Transcription from Banckes Herbal

Above, from left to right: Penciled note in Margaret Freeman’s hand on the identification and significance of the lily depicted in The Unicorn in Captivity; a Latin passage on the lily by the twelfth-century theologian Hugh of St. Victor, transcribed from the Patrologia Latina; the medicinal virtues of the white lily, transcribed from Bancke’s Herbal by Freeman.

M. Freeman Note on Lily Bulbs Cover of Brochure for French Bulbs Text of Brochure for French Bulbs

Above, from left to right: A note on the proper time to plant lily bulbs, taken by M. Freeman from The Goodman of Paris, a modern English translation of the fourteenth-century Menagier de Paris; the cover and text of a brochure on French-grown Lilium candidum bulbs from the archives; then as now, every effort was made to provide authentic plants for the gardens of The Cloisters.


Geoffrey T. Hellman, The Talk of the Town, “Cloistered Plants,” New Yorker, March 29, 1952, 24.

Freeman, Margaret B. The Unicorn Tapestries. New York: E. P. Dutton, Inc., 1956.

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Comments (4)

  1. James Says:

    Fantastic gardens, and this is some history that I did not know. Thank you!

  2. joan mckniff Says:

    for those of us who might get to NYC and the Met once a year, this feature is a daily gift, all god but some better than others. this is one of the best. thanks for reaching out to us. Sarasota, Florida

  3. Deirdre Larkin Says:

    I’m glad you enjoyed the post, Joan. I enjoyed writing it. One of the best things about working in this wonderful place is the sense that you are part of a tradition, inherited from people whose love of and devotion to The Cloisters and its gardens is still manifest every day.

  4. Margaret Hall Says:

    I echo Joan’s comments. The Cloisters and its gardens are a treasure .I first visited in 1964 and have inherited an earlier copy of Margaret Freeman’s book from my cousins who also loved it. When my son was young his 5th grade class had a unit on “Medieval Times” and parents and others were invited to make presentations. I did medieval gardens which have always been an interest of mine and I continued to do so for several years.I put various herbs and flowers in water picks on a piece of styrofoam with gothic lettering to identify each. They really seemed to enjoy it!
    These postings are wonderful! Glad to see the Museum gift shop is embracing Cloisters with their new floral line.I wish the museum had a 1x week (or more )shuttle to the Cloisters.It is not easy to get to.

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