August 2009 Archives

Medieval garden: design ideas and symbolism

At the very core of medieval aesthetics lies the concept of Creation. The entire universe was firmly believed to have been designed and created by the omnipotent God, the Source of everything that is good, right and beautiful. As a natural outcome of such a worldview certain objects and systems were seen as directly modeled after the Universe itself. In modern accounts this aesthetic principle is described in terms of macrocosm and microcosm. Along with the human body and church edifices, gardens were deemed to represent the essential structure of the entire cosmos, because a garden contains within it the same harmony, rhythm and richness that characterizes the created world as a whole. In addition, a medieval garden was supposed to be read in the manner of a book, thus revealing through symbols and allegories many spiritual truths, as well as general knowledge about nature and the humanity. A trained eye of a medieval monk or an educated layman never failed to decode the message hidden in every detail of a garden design.

A typical monastery garden had the form of a square divided into four parts by paths. The crossing of the paths obviously pointed to the death of Jesus Christ on the cross and His subsequent resurrection. In the middle of the garden one would often find a well, a fountain or a small pond, with water acting as a symbol of life or knowledge. Sometimes, a tree planted in the middle of a medieval garden served as a reminder of Paradise. This idea helped create a new concept of an "enclosed garden" (hortus conclusus), because after the Fall the Garden of Eden became inaccessible. Also, Virgin Mary became closely associated with hortus conclusus as a symbol of perpetual virginity, chastity and yet the ability to bear fruit. The Annunciation illustration from a medieval "Book of hours" shown above has some very specific plant symbols connected with Our Lady: the white lily, emblem of her purity and holiness,the red rose, emblem of her burning love of God, the myrtle, emblem of her virginity, the violet, emblem of her humility, the columbine, emblem of the Holy Spirit, and the strawberry, emblem of the divine fruit of her womb, Jesus.

These motifs were to some extent also present in the gardens of medieval nobility, but these "enclosed gardens" of castles and estates were often more utilitarian in their use, providing herbs, vegetables and, one can assume, poisonous substances for various uses. These gardens also incorporated some aspects of "loci amoeni" (pleasurable places) of Antiquity, with emphasis of earthly pleasures.

It appears that medieval notions of garden design can be easily implemented in modern times. The basic layout of such a garden would be simple, as described above, but rich symbolism must be established through the use of just a few accents. The medieval inspiration of your garden can ultimately be purely cerebral. If you have a solitary tree or a centrally located fountain all it takes is a mental exercise in seeing these objects as representations of some important universal truths and archetypes.

Formal Garden vs. Landscape Design school

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Sir Reginald Theodore Blomfield discusses the main differences between formal and landscape schools of design in his 1901 book "The formal garden in England".


The question at issue is a very simple one. Is the garden to be considered in relation to the house, and as an integral part of a design which depends for its success on the combined effect of house and garden; or is the house to be ignored in dealing with the garden ? The latter is the position of the landscape gardener in real fact. There is some affectation in his treatises of recognizing the relationship between the two, but his actual practice shows that this admission is only borrowed from the formal school to save appearances, and is out of court in a method which systematically dispenses with any kind of system whatever.


The formal treatment of gardens ought, perhaps, to be called the architectural treatment of gardens, for it consists in the extension of the principles of design which govern the house to the grounds which surround it. Architects are often abused for ignoring the surroundings of their buildings in towns, and under conditions which make it impossible for them to do otherwise; but if the reproach has force, and it certainly has, it applies with greater justice to those who control both the house and its surroundings, and yet deliberately set the two at variance. The object of formal gardening is to bring the two into harmony, to make the house grow out of its surroundings, and to prevent its being an excrescence on the face of nature. The building cannot resemble anything in nature, unless you are content with a mud-hut and cover it with grass. Architecture in any shape has certain definite characteristics which it cannot get rid of; but, on the other hand, you can lay out the grounds, and alter the levels, and plant hedges and trees exactly as you please; in a word, you can so control and modify the grounds as to bring nature into harmony with the house, if you cannot bring the house into harmony with nature. The harmony arrived at is not any trick of imitation, but an affair of a dominant idea which stamps its impress on house and grounds alike.


The formal school insists upon design ; the house and the grounds should be designed together and in relation to each other ; no attempt should be made to conceal the design of the garden, there being no reason for doing so, but the bounding lines, whether it is the garden wall or the lines of paths and parterres, should be shown frankly and unreservedly, and the garden will be treated specifically as an enclosed space to be laid out exactly as the designer pleases. The landscape gardener, on the other hand, turns his back upon architecture at the earliest opportunity and devotes his energies to making the garden suggest natural scenery, to giving a false impression as to its size by sedulously concealing all boundary lines, and to modifying the scenery beyond the garden itself, by planting or cutting down trees, as may be necessary to what he calls his picture. In matters of taste there is no arguing with a man. Probably people with a feeling for design and order will prefer the formal garden, while the landscape system, as 1t requires no knowledge of design, appeals to the average person who " knows what he likes," if he does not know anything else.


The word " garden " itself means an enclosed space, a garth or yard surrounded by walls, as opposed to unenclosed fields and woods. The formal garden, with its insistence on strong bounding lines, is, strictly speaking, the only "garden " possible ; and it was not till the decay of architecture, which began in the middle of the eighteenth century, that any other method of dealing with a garden was entertained.



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