Archive for the ‘Plants in Medieval Art’ Category

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Stories from the Understory

Detail of Hazel Trees

Detail of hazel tree in The Unicorn is Killed and Brought to the Castle (from the Unicorn Tapestries), 1495–1505. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of John D. Rockefeller Jr., 1937 (37.80.5)

The common hazel, or Corylus avellana, is an understory tree native to Europe and western Asia and is widely distributed from Scandinavia to the Mediterranean. The English name for the tree is derived from the Anglos-Saxon word haesel. The hazel appears in two critical medieval horticultural sources, the Carolingian Capitulare de Villis and in the St. Gall Plan, along with references in folklore, literature, and both Pagan and Christian traditions. The hazel is still cultivated today for its nuts, which are harvested after they have fallen from the tree in autumn. Hazelnuts are commercially grown in Oregon and Washington, although Turkey exports 75% of the world’s supply. Read more »

Friday, September 6, 2013

The Pink Reincarnate

unicorn_carnationdetail2

The Unicorn in Captivity (from the Unicorn Tapestries) (detail), 1495–1505. South Netherlandish. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of John D. Rockefeller Jr., 1937 (37.80.6). See Collections to learn more about this work of art. The red-flowered plant that appears to the left of the blue iris, just outside the Unicorn’s enclosure, is a carnation, a doubled garden form of the clove pink. Unlike the iris, which was already of ancient cultivation, these garden pinks were developed in the later Middle Ages.

LUXURIOUS man, to bring his vice in use,
Did after him the world seduce,
And from the fields the flowers and plants allure,
Where Nature was most plain and pure.
He first inclosed within the gardens square
A dead and standing pool of air,
And a more luscious earth for them did knead,
Which stupefied them while it fed.
The pink grew then as double as his mind;
The nutriment did change the kind.
With strange perfumes he did the roses taint;
And flowers themselves were taught to paint.

—Andrew Marvell (1621–1678), “The Mower Against Gardens,” Lines 1–12

This complaint, in which a mower laments that the sweet fields have been forsaken for the artificialities of the English Renaissance garden, was penned by Andrew Marvell, the seventeenth-century Metaphysical poet, who wrote as famously and well of gardens and their plants as he did of fields and wildflowers. In “The Mower Against Gardens,” Marvell chooses the doubled pink, or carnation, as the floral emblem of man’s fall from nature and agriculture into horticulture and duplicity. (A reading of the entire poem is available on YouTube.)

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Friday, August 9, 2013

Hunting Pinks

Dianthus

The ragged pink shown above, also known as Seguieri’s pink or broad-leaved pink, is native to southwestern Europe. This prettily fringed, or “pinked,” flower is one of three species of dianthus depicted in the Unicorn Tapestries. But is this dianthus, grown from seed just this year, the wild pink depicted in the detail from The Hunters Enter the Woods below?

The little pink growing in a pot on the parapet in Bonnefont garden was started from seed by gardener Esme Webb, who is responsible for propagation at The Cloisters. As has been the practice here for many years, we compare what we believe to be the medieval species procured with representations of that plant in the art collection. Although the seed we obtained from a European seed house was identified as Dianthus seguieri, the single flower borne on this young plant either lacks the white blotching characteristic of this species altogether, or has blotching so minimal as to be imperceptible. Read more »

Friday, May 10, 2013

When This You See, Remember Me

forget-me-not girl-with-garland

The forget-me-not’s associations with love and remembrance date to the Middle Ages, and were expressed in both the Old French and Middle High German names for this pretty little flower. Left: a pot of forget-me-nots on the parapet in Bonnefont garden. Photograph by Carly Still; Right: a young woman making a chaplet of forget-me-nots on the reverse of a portrait of a young man painted by Han Suess von Kulmbach. The legend on the banderole says “I bind with forget-me-nots.” See Collections for more information about this work of art.

A medieval symbol of love and remembrance that still decorated many a Victorian valentine, the forget-me-not (Myosotis scorpioides) was already known as ne m’oubliez mye in Old French and as vergiz min niht in Middle High German. The etymological and iconographic evidence for the forget-me-not’s medieval significance is ample, but the frequently repeated story of a German knight who tossed the forget-me-nots he had picked for his lady to her as he drowned, imploring her to remember him, is of the “as legend has it” variety. Margaret Freeman, who cites the use of forget-me-not as a token of steadfastness by several fifteenth-century German love poets, speculates that the color blue, associated with fidelity in the Middle Ages, may have contributed to the flower’s meaning.

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Friday, May 3, 2013

Prymerole, Prymerose

Cowslip

This pretty yellow flower, gathered since the Middle Ages when “bringing in the May,” was known in Middle English by various names, including primerose, primerole, and cowslyppe. Photograph by Carly Still

Primula veris, literally the “first little one of spring,” was known in Middle English as prymerole and as prymerose, or “the first rose.” It was also known as cowslip, a name thought to be derived from “cow slop” or dung, perhaps because it grew in meadows and pastures where cattle grazed. The names prymerole and prymerose came from the Latin through Old French, and were shared with the cowslip’s relative, the common primrose (Primula vulgaris). As Geoffrey Grigson notes in his fascinating compendium of plant lore, The Englishman’s Flora, it can be very difficult to distinguish which of the two species is meant in early sources. Renaissance plantsmen like William Turner, John Gerard, and John Parkinson tried to clarify the confusion caused by the shared common names; as late as the eighteenth century, the great Swedish naturalist and taxonomist Carolus Linnaeus considered the cowslip, the common primrose, and the oxlip (Primula elatior; see image) to be forms of the same species.

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Friday, March 8, 2013

Madder Red

No mader, welde, or wood no litestre
Ne knew; the flees was of his former hewe;
Ne flesh ne wiste offence of egge or spere.
No coyn ne knew man which was fals or trewe,
No ship yet karf the wawes grene and blewe,
No marchaunt yit ne fette outlandish ware.

—Geoffrey Chaucer, The Former Age, ll. 17–22

Rubia tinctorum (detail) The Unicorn Defends Itself (detail)

Above, left: Dyer’s madder, a rough perennial herb native from the Eastern Mediterranean to Central Asia, grows in the bed devoted to plants used in medieval arts and crafts in Bonnefont cloister. The dried and pulverized roots of madder afforded a strong, fast red. Right: Detail from The Unicorn Defends Itself (from the Unicorn Tapestries). A range of colors—from pinks through bright reds, purplish reds, and oranges—could be achieved with madder, depending on the mordant used and the way in which the madder was combined with other colorants. (See Collections for more information about this work of art.)

The antiquity of the dyer’s craft is conveyed by Chaucer’s inclusion of the ignorance of madder, weld, and woad, the holy trinity of medieval dye plants, in his description of a period so remote and so devoid of the arts of civilization as to predate the use of knives, spears, coins, and ships. The use of madder is especially ancient, as demonstrated by this fragment of an Egyptian leather quiver in the Museum’s collection that may date to the 3rd millennium B.C.

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Friday, February 8, 2013

Vegetable Gold

Crocus sativus Reseda luteola

Incomparably the most important yellow in medieval painting is the metal gold. Yellow pigments, however, played a significant part in the pageant of medieval technique. One of the most important services required of them was to imitate the appearance of gold. Another of their chief functions was to modify the qualities of greens, and to a less extent, of reds. Of all their uses, perhaps the least important was to represent yellow things.

—Daniel Thompson, The Materials and Techniques of Medieval Painting

The vegetable yellows used in medieval illumination were more readily prepared and much safer to use than mineral yellows like realgar or orpiment. Above, left: The brilliant red-orange stigmas of the autumn-blooming saffron crocus, used by medieval cooks as a colorant and a seasoning, were also exploited by illuminators. Right: Flower spikes of weld, the most ancient yellow dyestuff known. When processed as a pigment, this weedy biennial provided manuscript painters with a bright vegetable yellow.

A number of plants were exploited for coloring matter in the Middle Ages, whether to tint foodstuffs or to furnish dyes and pigments. By no means all, or even many, artist’s pigments were of vegetable origin; mineral colors were used for wall painting, where the more delicate and fugitive nature of vegetable colors was inappropriate. In book painting, a combination of vegetable and mineral colors was employed. The same plant that yielded a dye for textiles could be prepared as a pigment and used by illuminators. Several species produced a viable yellow, including weld, saffron, and celandine; as Daniel Thompson observes, these vegetable yellows served both to imitate the appearance of gold, and to modify greens and reds.

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Friday, February 1, 2013

Natural Symbols

Detail from Christ is Born as Man's Redeemer (Episode from The Story of the Redemption of Man)

The magpie in the leafless tree that spreads above the patriarchs and the bramble growing at the shackled feet of Man appear in a single scene from the magnificent allegorical tapestry Christ is Born as Man’s Redeemer (Episode from The Story of the Redemption of Man) on display at The Cloisters. Both the bird and the bush may be interpreted as symbolic expressions of Man’s fallen condition, which can yet be redeemed—the overarching theme of the series of ten hangings to which this work belongs.

Magpie Detail from Christ is Born as Man's Redeemer (Episode from The Story of the Redemption of Man)

Although the testimony of medieval bestiaries, sermons, allegories, and other sources encourage us to assign symbolic values to birds, plants, and animals, they are not always meant to bear a special meaning, and a very considerable range of meanings might be assigned to the same beast or plant. Sometimes exaggerated size or prominent placement is a clue that we are meant to pay special attention, but the possible significance of a natural symbol depends very much on the context of the individual work of art. I’d like to look at the magpie and the bramble shown above in the thematic context of human frailty, reconciliation, and redemption found in this tapestry.

The black-billed magpie (Pica pica) is a Eurasian species common in Europe and Britain. Before the seventeenth century, the bird was known simply as a “pie” or “pye,” from pie, the Old French rendering of the Latin pica, the feminine form of the name for woodpecker (see etymology), although magpies are corvids and are more closely related to crows, jackdaws, and jays than to woodpeckers. The English adjective “pied” or “piebald,” applied to particolored animals, is derived from the striking black-and-white plumage of the magpie. (The name for a baked dish with a pastry crust may ultimately have the same avian origin; see a related post on the blog The Salt).

Ancient and medieval natural historians were struck by the similarity of the magpie’s chatter to human speech (see, for example, The Natural History of Pliny), and the bird enjoyed a reputation for intelligence—an estimation borne out by modern research—but the character of the medieval magpie was as mixed as its plumage. The bird’s cleverness and its thieving habits were not altogether admirable; by the fifteenth century, a sly or wily person was called a “pye.” William Harrison, in the 1587 edition of his Description of England, tells a story of a chaplain, himself “the wiliest pye of all,” who persuades his patroness that the noisy magpies that pester her are not birds but souls in purgatory, clamoring for release. In a separate discussion of the birds of England, Harrison classes the magpie as an “unclean” bird, along with ravens and crows. According to the Continuum Encyclopedia of Animals in Art the magpie is associated with death in Western art, and appears as a “gallows bird” in the work of Northern painters like Pieter Bruegel the Elder (e.g., The Magpie on the Gallows) and Hieronymus Bosch. The magpie in Bosch’s Prodigal Son has been interpreted as an emblem of the prodigal’s soul, representing the phases of his conversion. The dual nature of the magpie, manifest in its black-and-white coloration, was also associated with frailty and inconstancy.

Magpie Detail from the Merode Triptych

Magpies are frequently depicted in medieval art. In this detail from the left-hand panel of the Annunciation Triptych (Merode Altarpiece), a magpie perches high on the stepped gable above the entry to the courtyard of the Virgin’s house. (For a gallery of magpie images from medieval manuscripts, visit the Medieval Bestiary.)

Bramble Detail from Christ is Born as Man's Redeemer (Episode from The Story of the Redemption of Man)

I take the thorny bush at the feet of Man, which might look like a small-flowered wild rose at first blush, to be another member of the rose family, the common bramble or blackberry, Rubus fruticosus, with immature fruit. The unripe red “berry” of the bramble, actually a cluster of little drupelets, turns black as the fruit matures. (The ARKIVE website features a gallery of images of the common bramble in all its stages of growth, and a time-lapse video of the formidable speed with which it grows.) According to Genesis 3:17–18, thorns and thistles first came into the world when the ground was cursed after the fall of Adam and Eve. Thorny plants are often associated with error, sin, and the fallen state of humankind in medieval art. The black-fruited bramble was also associated with death. For another example of a thorny plant in an allegorical context of human frailty, also in The Cloisters collection, see Old Age Drives the Stag out of a Lake and the Hounds Heat, Grief, Cold, Anxiety, Age, and Heaviness Pursue Him, in which the stag representing Mankind leaps toward a large rosebush armed with formidable thorns.

For more information on the identification of plants in medieval tapestry, see
Name That Plant” (January 28, 2011) and “Name That Plant, Continued” (February 5, 2011).

For further investigations into natural symbols in medieval tapestry, please join me at The Cloisters this Sunday, February 3, for “Birds, Beasts, and Flowers.” We’ll meet in the Main Hall at noon and spend an hour in the galleries. The program will repeat at 2:00 p.m. For more on gallery talks, programs, and events at the Museum, see Events at the Cloisters.

—Deirdre Larkin

Friday, November 30, 2012

Wallflower

Wallflower (Erysimum cheiri) Detail from The Hunters Enter the Woods (from the Unicorn Tapestries)

Left: A wallflower in Bonnefont garden shows a cheerful yellow in late November. Wallflowers require a cold period to bloom, and generally flower in spring. Our plants were started indoors from seed and planted out in the garden this summer; the autumn chill spurred them into bloom. Right: Detail of a wallflower blooming above a hunter’s head in The Hunters Enter the Woods (from the Unicorn Tapestries).

The stalks of the Wall floure are full of green branches, the leaves are long, narrowe, smooth, slippery, of a blackish greene colour, and lesser than the leaves of stocke Gillofloures. The floures are small, yellow, very sweete of smell, and made of foure little leaves; which being past, there succeed long slender cods, in which is contained flat reddish seed. The whole plant is shrubby, of a wooddie substance, and can easily endure the colde of winter.

—John Gerard, Of wall-Floures, or yellow Stocke-Gillo-floures,” Chap. 119, The Herball, or Generall Historie of Plants, 1633

The sweetly perfumed common wallflower (Erysimum cheiri) belongs to the mustard family, or Brassicaceae, along with such pungent vegetables as cabbage and horseradish. It is in no way related to the sweet violet, Viola odorata, or to the spicy-smelling clove pink (Dianthus caryophyllus), but it bore ancient and medieval names associated with both, to the confusion of plant and garden historians. The name “violet” was applied to more than one sweet-smelling species by the ancients; the French girofle and the English “gillyflower” given to the pink derived from the Latin name for clove, but in England a number of fragrant garden flowers in the mustard family, including stock (Matthiola incana), dame’s rocket (Hesperis matronalis), and wallflower, were all known as “stock gilliflowers.” John Harvey, an authority on medieval plants and gardens, identified the sweet-smelling kheiri mentioned in medieval Islamic sources with this same group of closely related plants. The fourteenth-century Dominican friar and horticulturist Henry Daniel didn’t regard the yellow wallflower, a native of Southern Europe, as a well-known plant in England, although he admired it and thought it easy to grow. While Daniel notes that the plant was called keyrus by the Saracens, it was known to him as Viola major, or “great violet.”

The Greek herbalist Dioscorides had discussed several plant forms under the single name of “Leukion,” or “white violet.” He noted that there were white, yellowish, blue, and purplish varieties of leukion, and that the yellowish variety was best for medicinal use. Medieval herbalists followed Dioscorides in regarding all these forms as varieties of a single plant, but Renaissance botanists and plantsmen like William Turner and John Gerard distinguished between the white or purplish-flowering “stock gilliflowers” and the yellow-flowering “cheiry,” or wallflower, in their reading of Dioscorides.

The history of the common English name “wallflower” is less convoluted: Gerard says that the wallflower grows on brick and stone walls, in the corners of churchyards everywhere, and on rubbish heaps and other stony places, flowering all year long, but especially in winter.

—Deirdre Larkin

Sources:

Anderson, Frank J., ed. “Herbals through 1500,” The Illustrated Bartsch, Vol. 90. New York: Abaris, 1984.

Gerard, John. The Herbal or General History of Plants. The Complete 1633 Edition as Revised and Enlarged by Thomas Johnson. New York: Dover, 1975.

Gunther, Robert T., ed. The Greek Herbal of Dioscorides, translated by John Goodyer 1655. 1934. Reprint: New York: Hafner Publishing, 1968.

Harvey, John H. “Gilliflower and Carnation.” Garden History, Vol. 6, No. 1 (Spring, 1978), pp. 46-5

____Medieval Gardens. Beaverton, Oregon: Timber Press, 1981

Turner, William. The Names of Herbes, A.D. 1548. Edited by James Britten. London: N. Trübner & Co., 1881.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Inside and Outside the Garden Walls

Unicorn in Captivity

The Unicorn in Captivity, 1495–1505. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of John D. Rockefeller Jr., 1937 (37.80.6). The profusion of flowering plants that springs from the millefleurs meadow on which the unicorn rests includes both garden plants and wildflowers. An iris and a clove pink are prominently placed outside the unicorn’s enclosure; both were intensively cultivated in the Middle Ages, but the purple orchis silhouetted against the unicorn’s body depends on a special relationship with microorganisms in its native soil and would not have grown in gardens.

Roses, lilies, iris, violet, fennel, sage, rosemary, and many other aromatic herbs and flowers were prized for their beauty and fragrance, as well as their culinary and medicinal value, and were as much at home in the medieval pleasure garden as in the kitchen or physic garden. These plants were carefully cultivated, but many useful plants of the Middle Ages were found outside the garden walls, or admitted on sufferance.

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