Leila Osmani, a security guard who has worked at The Cloisters for six years, gazes out into Cuxa cloister garth garden in the morning before the Museum opens. In the Middle Ages, this garden would have provided the monks with refreshment and nourishment.
In the Middle Ages the color green symbolized rebirth, life, everlasting life, nature, and spring. I think it is fair to say that these attributions hold true to this day.
The twelfth-century mystic and theologian Hugh of St. Victor believed that green was the “most beautiful of all the colours” and a “symbol of Spring and an image of rebirth.” His theory was supported by William of Auvergne, who said the color “lies halfway between white, which dilates the eye, and black, which makes it contract,” creating a calm sensation, especially when viewed in great expanse.
Benedictine monks of the Middle Ages, who devoted their lives to study, prayer, and work, found great benefits from the green turf that grew in the cloister garth garden, which was set in the center of the monastery and positioned alongside the church; it was utilized as a place for prayer, study, relaxation, and meditation. Monks took great care of their green turf, which was always cut short and never allowed to brown. What a feat that must have been! (Here at The Cloisters, we’ve added “fixing the lawns” to our late August to-do list.) Hugh of Fouilloy, the twelfth-century cleric, said, “The green turf which is in the middle of the material cloister refreshes encloistered eyes and their desire to study returns. It is truly the nature of the colour green that it nourishes the eyes and preserves their vision.” (For more on medieval lawns, see “The Medieval Lawn,” April 17, 2009.)
Each morning that I tend to Cuxa Cloister garth garden at The Cloisters, I experience something comparable to what Fouilloy describes. I rake the lawns, sweep the walkways, and tend to the perennials. I find some peace in these meditative practices, but I’m not alone in the space. Before 10:00 a.m. (when the Museum opens), several guards sit on benches situated around the garden under the protected passageway. On most days, they are silent, peering tranquilly into the green of the garden in this quiet time they have to themselves. It’s quite a sight, and it seems that we all, like medieval monks, find refreshment, clarity, and ease in this green environment. Though we are not confined to this space as the monks would have been, we are within these “encloistered” walls for the duration of our work day. There are many other employees of The Cloisters who walk out into the gardens for pleasure, to peer over the wall in Bonnefont and gaze out onto the orchard lawn (partly to look for our resident woodchuck).
The medieval mystic Hildegard of Bingen wrote profusely on the healing properties of plants; and in her descriptions she uses the Latin word viriditas, “which literally means ‘greenness’ and symbolically means growth or the principle of life.” It was a shared belief of this time that the life of God was spread into plants and animals, and this viriditas was then consumed and transferred into humans. Her exploration of the healing power of “greenness” is evidenced in her description of Gladiolus: “Gladiolus [gladiola] is warm and dry. All its power is in its root, and its greenness rises into its leaves. In May, take juice from its leaves. Melt fat in a dish and add this juice, thus making an ointment that appears to be green. Let whoever has a little bit of scabies rub this ointment on frequently; the person will be cured.” (For more on the work of Hildegard of Bingen, see “Mutter Nature,” October 15, 2010.)
My own introduction into the thinking of green was ignited by one of my college professors, Thomas Sarrantonio, a naturalist and landscape painter. During a course he taught, called Art and Nature, we explored the connection between the two. We were encouraged to experience the color green in the natural landscape and observe its vastness in tonal variation; this exercise shifted my own internal interpretations of the power of green and of nature, as well as the way that I observed it.
The symbolism of green holds to this day: gardeners rely on it to harmonize their plantings, people retreat to parks for fresh air and tranquility, we know a healthy diet is rich in greens, and cities improve the lives of their residents by planting green spaces. Green is still a symbol of growth, healing, and life. I highly recommend that everyone find some “green” in their daily lives.
—Carly Still, Assistant Horticulturist
Eco, Umberto. Art and beauty in the Middle Ages, translated by Hugh Bredin. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986.
Hildegard von Bingen. Hildegard’s healing plants: from her medieval classic Physica, translated by Bruce W. Hozeski. Boston: Beacon Press, 2001.
Landsberg, Sylvia. Medieval Gardens. London: Thames & Hudson, 1996.