Posts Tagged ‘Unicorn tapestries’

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, 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, 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, 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, January 28, 2011

Name That Plant

Unicorn_in_Captivity Calendula_detail Doronicum_detail

Above: Three details from The Unicorn in Captivity, 1495–1505, South Netherlandish; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of John D. Rockefeller Jr., 1937 (37.80.6).

Many of the superbly rendered plants and flowers depicted in The Unicorn in Captivity are botanically correct: most are detailed portraits of individual species that are lifelike enough to be immediately identifiable; a number of others are somewhat stylized depictions that conform to a recognizable convention, and a few are so highly stylized that they can’t be given a specific identity. Medieval tapestries as late in date as this one (about the year 1500) have a much higher proportion of recognizable plants than millefleurs tapestries of the early fifteenth century, in which many if not all of the plants may be highly stylized generic types, rather than naturalistically rendered botanical species. Read more »

Friday, November 12, 2010

Feverfew

Tanacetum parthenium with label Tanacetum parthenium The Unicorn Defends Itself (feverfew detail)

The common name of feverfew is derived from the Latin febrifuge. Botanists now place this member of the aster family in the genus Tanacetum, but feverfew was formerly known both as Chrysanthemum parthenium and Pyrethrum parthenium and may be listed as such in older sources. Above, left and center: Feverfew growing in Bonnefont garden in November; right: the only feverfew plant depicted in the Unicorn Tapestries appears between the feet of the hunter poised to spear the quarry in The Unicorn Defends Itself.

Feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium) is a strongly aromatic herb in the aster family; it is closely related to costmary (Tanacetum balsamita) and to tansy (Tanacetum officinale), both of which also grow in Bonnefont garden. While tansy has been employed as a medicine, a food, and an insect repellent, feverfew is strictly a medicinal herb. The medieval name of this antipyretic species is derived from the Latin febrifuge and refers to its usefulness in driving off fever. Read more »

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Birdie Love, My Birdie Love

nightingalepheasantfinches_150 unicorn-partridges_150 heronwoodcockmallard_150

Above, from left to right: In The Unicorn is Found, a handsome pair of pheasants has been attracted to the fountain (the larger detail shows two goldfinches and a nightingale perched nearby); two partridges keep company on the bank at the bottom of The Unicorn is Attacked; The Unicorn Defends Itself includes a stately heron, and a woodcock and a mallard flying low to the water are visible in the larger detail.

Saynt Valentyn, that art ful hy on-lofte,
Thus syngen smale foules for thy sake:
Now welcome, somer, with thy sonne softe,
That hast this wintres wedres overshake.
Wel han they cause for to gladen ofte,
Sith ech of hem recovered hath hys make;
Ful blissful mowe they synge when they wake:
Now welcome, somer, with thy sonne softe
That hast this wintres wedres overshake
And driven away the longe nyghtes blake!

—Excerpt (lines 682–692) from The Parlement of Fowles by Geoffrey Chaucer. For a modern prose translation of the complete work, see: www.umm.maine.edu/faculty/necastro/chaucer/pf/.

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Friday, February 5, 2010

Landscape Design in the Middle Ages

annunciation_detail2_300 The Unicorn in Captivity (detail) Trie Cloister Garden

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. Read more »

Friday, August 21, 2009

Mysterious Cucubalus

Cucubalus baccifer in flower Detail from The Unicorn Is Killed and Brought to the Castle Cucubalus baccifer in fruit

Above, left to right: Berry-bearing catchfly (Cucubalus baccifer) flowering in a shady bed in Bonnefont Garden in July; a detail from the foreground of The Unicorn is Killed and Brought to the Castle showing the catchfly in flower and fruit behind the forelegs of a hunting dog; the shiny black fruits, which give the berry-bearing catchfly its name, ripening in August.

Berry-bearing catchfly (Cucubalus baccifer) is a pretty, lax-stemmed little plant that scrambles over and through the hellebores, ferns, and other shade-loving plants growing in a small bed under the east wall of Bonnefont Garden. We would be hard put to find a home for it anywhere else in Bonnefont, which is organized by use, since we haven’t been able to document either any medieval medicinal applications or any magical or symbolic attributes associated with it. Read more »

Friday, July 31, 2009

Immortal Fruit

Punica granatum 'Nana' Detail from the Unicorn Tapestry showing a pomegranate Punica granatum

Above, from left to right: A potted dwarf pomegranate flowering and fruiting now; a detail of a pomegranate tree depicted in The Unicorn Is Attacked; a full-sized pomegranate ripening on a tree set in the ground in Bonnefont Garden. Pomegranates are deciduous; the leaves turn a bright yellow before falling in October. By the Middle Ages, the exotic eastern fruit had long been cultivated in southern Europe. Although it is not cold-hardy, pomegranate has been grown in the gardens of The Cloisters from their beginnings.

I went down into the nut orchard,
to look at the blossoms of the
valley,
To see whether the vines had budded,
whether the pomegranates were
in bloom.
Before I was aware, my fancy set me
in a chariot beside my prince.

Song of Solomon 6:11 and 12 (Revised Standard Version)

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