Hortus conclusus  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Hortus conclusus is a Latin term, meaning literally "enclosed garden". "The word 'garden' is at root the same as the word 'yard'. It means an enclosure", observed Derek Clifford, at the outset of a series of essays on garden design, in which he skirted the conventions of the hortus conclusus. Thus, at their root, both of the words in hortus conclusus refer linguistically to enclosure.

Hortus conclusus is both an attribute and title of the Virgin Mary in Medieval and Renaissance poetry and art, suddenly appearing in paintings and manuscript illuminations about 1400,and a genre of actual garden that was enclosed both symbolically and as a practical concern, a major theme in the history of gardening.

The Virgin Mary as hortus conclusus

The term hortus conclusus is derived from the Vulgate Bible's Canticle of Canticles (also called the Song of Songs or Song of Solomon) 4:12, in Latin: "Hortus conclusus soror mea, sponsa, hortus conclusus, fons signatus" ("A garden enclosed is my sister, my spouse; a garden enclosed, a fountain sealed up." This provided the shared linguistic culture of Christendom, expressed in homilies expounding the Song of Songs as allegory where the image of Solomon's nuptial song to his bride was reinterpreted as the love and union between Christ and the Church, the mystical marriage with the Church as the Bride of Christ. The verse "Thou art all fair, my love; there is no spot in thee" (4.7) from the Song was also regarded as a scriptural confirmation of the developing and still controversial doctrine of Mary's Immaculate Conception - being born without Original Sin ("macula" is Latin for spot).

Christian tradition states that Jesus Christ was conceived to Mary miraculously and without disrupting her virginity by the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Holy Trinity. As such, Mary in late medieval and Renaissance art, illustrating the long-held doctrine of the Perpetual virginity of Mary, as well as the Immaculate Conception, was shown in or near a walled garden or yard. This was a representation of her "closed off" womb, which was to remain untouched, and also of her being protected, as by a wall, from sin. In the Grimani Breviary, scrolling labels identify the emblemmatic objects betokening the Immaculate Conception: the enclosed garden (hortus conclusus), the tall cedar (cedrus exalta), the well of living waters (puteus aquarum viventium), the olive tree (oliva speciosa), the fountain in the garden (fons hortorum), the rosebush (plantatio rosae). Not all actual medieval horti conclusi even strove to include all these details, the olive tree in particular being insufficiently hardy for northern European gardens.

The enclosed garden is recognizable in Fra Angelico's Annunciation (illustration, above right), dating from 1430-32.

Actual gardens

In the history of gardens the High Medieval hortus conclusus typically had a well or fountain at the center, bearing its usual symbolic freight (see "Fountain of Life") in addition to its practical uses. The convention of four paths that divided the square enclosure into quadrants, was so strong that the pattern was employed even where the paths led nowhere. All medieval gardens were enclosed, protecting the private precinct from public intrusion, whether by folk or by stray animals. The enclosure might be as simple as woven wattle fencing; or it might be enclosed by trelliswork tunneled pathways in a secular garden or by an arcaded cloister, for communication or meditative pacing.

The origin of the cloister is in the Roman colonnaded peristyle, as every garden history notes; the ruined and overgrown Roman villas that were so often remade as the site of Benedictine monasteries had lost their planted garden features with the first decades of abandonment. Though "when, in 1070, the abbey of Cassino was rebuilt," Georgina Masson observed, "the garden was described as 'a paradise in the Roman fashion'", it may have been merely "the aura of the great classical tradition" alone that had survived. The ninth-century idealised plan of Saint Gall (illustration) shows an arcaded cloister with a central well and cross paths from the centers of each range of arcading, but when a consciously patterned garden was revived for the medieval cloister, the patterning came through Norman Sicily and its hybrid culture adapting many Islamic elements, in this case the enclosed North African courtyard gardens, ultimately based on the Persian garden tradition.

The practical enclosed garden was laid out in the treatise by Pietro Crescenzi of Bologna, Liber ruralium commodorum, a work that was often copied, as the many surviving manuscripts of its text attest, and often printed in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Late medieval paintings and illuminations in manuscripts such as for The Romance of the Rose— where the garden in the text is largely allegorical— often show a turfed bank for a seat as a feature of the hortus conclusus. Only in the fifteenth century, at first in Italy, did some European gardens begin to look outward.

Sitting, walking and playing music were the activities most often portrayed in the numerous fifteenth-century paintings and illuminated manuscripts, where strenuous activities were inappropriate. In Rome, a late fifteenth-century cloister at San Giovanni dei Genovesi was constructed for the use of the Genoese natio, an Ospitium Genoensium, as a plaque still proclaims, which provided shelter in cubicles off its vaulted encircling arcades, and a meeting place and shelter reuniting those from the distant home city.

Somewhat earlier, Pietro Barbo, who became Pope Paul II in 1464, began the construction of a hortus conclusus, the Palazzetto del Giardino di San Marco, attached to the Venetian Cardinals' Roman seat, the Palazzo Venezia. It served as Paul's private garden during his papacy; inscriptions stress its secular functions as sublimes moenibus hortos...ut relevare animum, durasque repellere curas, a garden of sublime delights, a retreat from cares, and praise it in classicising terms, as the home of the dryads, suggesting that there was a central grove of trees, and mentioning its snowy-white stuccoed porticoes. An eighteenth-century engraving shows a tree-covered central mount, which has been recreated in the modern replanting, with box-bordered cross and saltire gravelled paths.

The Farnese Gardens (Orti Farnesiani sul Palatino-- or "Gardens of Farnese upon the Palatine") were created by Vignola in 1550 on Rome's northern Palatine Hill, for Cardinal Alessandro Farnese (1520-89). These become the first private botanical gardens in Europe (the first botanical gardens of any kind in Europe being started by Italian universities in the mid-16th century, only a short time before). Alessandro called his summer home at the site Horti Farnesiani, probably in reference to the hortus conclusus. These gardens were also designed in the Roman peristylium style with a central fountain.

Again in the age of the automobile, the enclosed garden that had never disappeared in Islamic society, became an emblem of serenity and privacy in the Western world.

In art

The hortus conclusus was one of a number of depictions of the Virgin in the late Middle Ages developed to be more informal and intimate than the traditional hieratic enthroned Virgin adopted from Byzantine icons, or the Coronation of the Virgin. Germany and the Netherlands in the 15th century saw the peak popularity of this depiction of the Virgin, usually with Child, and very often a crowd of angels, saints and donors, in the garden - the garden by itself, to represent the Virgin, was much rarer. Often walls, or trellises close off the sides and rear, or it may be shown as open, except for raised banks, to a landscape beyond. Sometimes, as with a Gerard David in London, the garden is very fully depicted; at other times, as in engravings by Martin Schongauer, only a wattle fence and a few sprigs of grass serve to identify the theme. Italian painters typically also keep plants to a minimum, and do not have grass benches. A sub-variety of the theme was the German "Madonna of the Roses", sometimes attempted in sculptured altarpieces. The image was rare in Orthodox icons, but there are at least some Russian examples. One type of depiction, not usually compatible with correct perspective, concentrates on showing the whole wall, and several garden structures or features that symbolize the mystery of Christ's conception, mostly derived from the Song of Songs or other Biblical passages, as interpreted by theological writers. These may include one or more temple or church-like buildings, an Ivory Tower (SS 7.4), an open-air altar with Aaron's rod flowering, surrounded by the bare rods of the other tribes, a gatehouse "tower of David, hung with shields" (SS 7.4), with the gate closed, the Ark of the Covenant, a well (often covered), a fountain, and the morning sun above (SS 6.10).

This type of depiction usually shows the Annunciation, although sometimes the child Jesus is held by Mary. The miniature at right shows a relatively simple example; below a large Spanish altarpiece is able to combine many of the usual features (others no doubt contained in the many chapels) with correct perspective.

A rather rare, late 15th century, variant of this depiction was to combine the Annunciation in the hortus conclusus with the Hunt of the Unicorn and Virgin and Unicorn, so popular in secular art. The unicorn already functioned as a symbol of the Incarnation and whether this meaning is intended in many prima facie secular depictions can be a difficult matter of scholarly interpretation. There is no such ambiguity in the scenes where the archangel Gabriel is shown blowing a horn, as hounds chase the unicorn into the Virgin's arms, and a little Christ Child descends on rays of light from God the Father. The Council of Trent finally banned this somewhat over-elaborated, if charming, depiction, partly on the grounds of realism, as no one now believed the unicorn to be a real animal. In the 16th century the subject of the hortus conclusus drifts into the open air Sacra Conversazione and the Madonnas in a landscape of Giovanni Bellini, Albrecht Dürer and Raphael, where it is hard to say if an allusion is intended.

An exhibition of later medieval visual representations of hortus inclusus was mounted at Dumbarton Oaks, Washington DC; the exhibition drew a distinction between "garden representations as thematic reinforcements and those that seemingly treat the garden as a subject in itself"; in reviewing it Timothy Husband, warned against uncritical interpretation of the refined detail in manuscript illuminations' "seemingly objective representation". "Late medieval garden imagery, by subjugating direct observation to symbolic or allegorical intention, reflects more a state of mind than reality," if a disjunct can be detected where the objects of the world shimmered with pregnant allegorical meaning. South Netherlandish illuminations and painting appear to document the "turf benches, fountains, raised beds, 'estrade' trees, potted plants, walkways, enclosing walls, trellises, wattle fences and bowers" familiar to contemporary viewers, but assembled into an illusion of reality.

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Hortus conclusus" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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