Seclusion, Sin, and Sanctity: The Virgin Mary’s Enclosed Gardens

Leonardo da Vinci, The Annunciation, c. 1472–75.

Wikimedia Commons
Leonardo da Vinci, The Annunciation, c. 1472–75.
Finding new meanings in the Hortus Conclusus

Finding new meanings in the Hortus Conclusus

Verona, Musei Civici, Photographic Archive, Umberto Tomba

Antonio Pisano (Pisanello), Madonna with Child or Madonna of the Quail, c. 1420. Tempera on wood. Verona, Museo di Castelvecchio.

The hortus conclusus went beyond depictions in art and became the model on which cloisters and private gardens were built.

On the evening of November 19, 2015, three armed and masked men entered the Castelvecchio Museum in Verona, Italy, and stole seventeen paintings valued around $17.7 million. Among the seventeen, there was the Madonna of the Quail (c. 1420) by Pisanello (c. 1390-1455), one of the greatest artists of the early Italian Renaissance and International Gothic style. The painting depicts the Madonna with Child sitting in a beautiful rose garden while crowned by two angels. The Virgin is portrayed wearing her typical blue cloak over a red dress, the symbol of human nature covered by the divine. The gold leaf background suggests the holy nature of the scene and the wealth of the patron who commissioned the painting. The plants and animals that Pisanello added in the garden are also filled with meaning. The rose is the symbol of love and of Mary’s virginity and its thorns are a reminder of the Original Sin and the banishing of Adam and Eve from Eden. The quail visible at the feet of the Madonna represents the Virgin’s humility and the immortality of the soul.

The Madonna of the Quail is one of the most fascinating examples of the artistic genre called Hortus Conclusus, a Latin term meaning “enclosed garden.” The term hortus conclusus appears in the Bible’s Song of Songs (also known as Song of Solomon) 4:12 which reads: “Hortus conclusus soror mea, sponsa, hortus conclusus, fons signatus" (A garden enclosed is my sister, my spouse; a garden enclosed, a fountain sealed up). In time, the song that had been written to celebrate the marriage of King Solomon became an allegory of the union between Christ and the Church. Father Antonio Scattolini, a Salesian priest and art historian, explains that “along the centuries, the biblical image of the hortus was also applied to the theological interpretation of Mary’s virginity and the dogma of the incarnation of Christ.”

Courtesy Pinacoteca di Brera

Bernardino Luini, Madonna and Child (Madonna of the Rose-bush), c. 1500-10. Oil on panel.

To represent Mary in an enclosed garden was, therefore, a way to depict the Madonna’s immaculate conception—as she was born without sin—as well as the conception of Christ through the Holy Spirit. The hortus conclusus became a frequent theme in Medieval art. In some cases, it was paired with the Annunciation, while in others it included a sacra conversazione (sacred conversation), the depiction of the Virgin and the Child together with other saints or patrons. For instance, in Madonna of the Rose Garden (c. 1420) by Michelino da Besozzo (c. 1370- c. 1455), the Virgin and Child are portrayed together with angels and Saint Catherine of Alexandria, recognizable by the spiked wheel and the sword at her feet. The enclosed gardens were either clearly painted—the walls were evident, the garden in full bloom—or hinted at, like in the case of Bernardino Luini’s Madonna and Child (c. 1500-10) where roses climb a trellis in the background.

The hortus conclusus went beyond depictions in art and became the model on which cloisters and private gardens were built. Monks and nuns found spiritual and physical solace in the monasteries’ gardens where they could meditate while growing plants and flowers. The first private botanical garden in Europe, the Horti Farnesiani (the name is a clear reference to the hortus), was created for Cardinal Alessandro Farnese in 1550 and was structured into quadrants with a fountain at the center. Walled gardens were not exclusive to the Christian cultural context but appeared in Greek, Egyptian, and Sumerian cultures as well as in Asian and Islamic traditions.

Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art

Master G.Z. (possibly Michele dai Carri), Madonna and Child with the Donor, Pietro de' Lardi, Presented by Saint Nicholas, c. 1420-30.

In Medieval European art, the Virgin’s seclusion, sin, and sanctity were interdependent concepts. The Virgin was immaculate, but needed walls to protect her from evil; the garden represented a fertile womb, untouched and therefore pure, yet able to give birth to the son of God. “The 'protect the woman from sin' idea is disingenuous, although ubiquitous. In most cultures, female sexuality is seen as dangerous to men,” argues Professor Liz Herbert McAvoy of Swansea University. “By locking them up, they 'contain' that threat, whilst at the same time masquerading as protecting women from men.”

Wikimedia commons

Fra Angelico, The Annunciation, 1440-45. Fresco, Convent of San Marco, Florence.

Under this light, the hortus appears as a concept created by men for men, a way to cage and control female sexuality. “The key thing is that men still need to seek out that power, which is to do with the idea of immortality via female sexuality, fertility and ability to produce humans from their own bodies.” Continues Herbert McAvoy, “Men don't have this capacity, so masculinity needs to dominate and appropriate it to present an illusion that it is their own.” Despite this dominance attempt, the woman at the center of the walled gardens remains powerful. Over the centuries, secluded women became artists, poets, writers, musicians, and successfully influenced their cultural, social, and economic environments.

Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art

Master of the Munich Bavarian Panels, Virgin and Child with a Donor Presented by Saint Jerome, c. 1450.

The hortus conclusus can also inspire some reflection on the current historical moment. What lies beyond walls of our homes is a suffering and frail world where nature has been caged, exploited and bent to fulfill our profit-driven desires for too many years. “How could we think to stay healthy in a world that was sick?” asked Pope Francis during the Urbi et Orbi blessing on March 27. To protect ourselves and others from a recently discovered disease, we were asked to find refuge in our homes, to live secluded, shielded by walls. This isolation will be economically and socially hard for many, but it can make us realize that our approach to nature must change.

“We are not 'keepers' or 'onlookers' of nature but we, too, ARE part of the natural whole and cannot seek to dominate (because ultimately we can't),” stresses Herbert McAvoy. Our homes might not be as peaceful and blossoming as the Medieval hortus conclusus, yet this artistic expression can still teach us something beyond the religious angle. “Things that have been traditionally female coded (birth, care, nurture, communication, language, empathy etc.) are not things to be locked up, subordinate and appropriated by men when needed,” explains Herbert McAvoy, “but the very foundations (gardens) upon which our cultures still depend. We must make these things more visible, more openly influential by unlocking the gate to the gardens in which they are contained.”

About the Author

Caterina Bellinetti

Dr. Caterina Bellinetti is an art historian specialised in photography and Chinese visual propaganda and culture.

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