There’s no mistaking Europe’s love of its gardens. While on a study travel program through St. Olaf College in 2008, I had the chance to stroll through some beautifully kept estate gardens from the 16th Century, with their peculiar “follies,” water features, and of course the roses with stems as big around as my arm. We could only imagine such gardens in northern Wisconsin, where a rose is lucky to survive the winter at all!
Having spectacular ornamental gardens during the Early Modern Era was also of great importance to the landed gentry. Not only was it a sign of conspicuous consumption (I’m not using this land to grow food and I can afford people to do all the work to keep it pretty too), but it was considered an integral part of the refinement of upper crust culture.
This is the space where couples gathered to share love poetry, where esteemed guests were entertained, where maidens sat at embroidery when the weather was fair, and where comfortable walks were enjoyed. The nobleman’s garden was often walled–secluded from the rest of the world like its own perfect Eden.
Sometimes we forget that noble life wasn’t all parties and fancy dress. This was the ruling class, involved in all the conflicts, power play, and politics of the day. A flowering garden offered an island of peace in the midst of nearly constant wartime struggle that dominated with 15th and 16th Centuries. After finally ending the Hundred Year’s War with France, the Wars of the Roses rocked England and deposed the Plantagenet reign for that of the Tudors. Almost exclusively affecting the ruling elite, this struggle is contemporary with the earliest theorized dates for the making of the Unicorn Tapestries (1480’s to 1510’s).
Men were called to war, women died in childbirth–it certainly wasn’t easy times. A relaxing stroll in the garden, picking flowers and enjoying sweets, would have seemed an incredible luxury. This is reflected in many contemporary tapestries, which of course were commissioned by these same noble classes. Castle walls are stony and often bleak, and lining them with luxurious tapestries not only helped to insulate the cold and damp but also visually livened the space. What better way to chase off the bleakness than to bring the beloved gardens inside!
Each plant and flower (as well as the friendly birds and animals depicted in tapestry gardens) also carried symbolic meaning. Being offered a flower by a suitor was more than a pretty fancy–different blooms (or even different colors of the same type of flower) carried their own messages. A rose showed the triumph of love over death, the lily eternal purity, and the daffodil chivalrous intent.
But there is an interesting peculiarity in the representation of gardens in tapestry (which can also be clearly seen in the Unicorn Tapestries). All the majestic trees and beautiful flowers are doing an impossibility for nature–they are blooming and bearing fruit at the same time. Oranges hang ripe alongside acorns, carnations and crocuses and violets bloom alongside asters and roses. It is as if these gardens are touched by the magic of what could only be a dream garden even to the viewers of its day–where every stem bears a bloom and every branch bears fruits for harvesting. Lushness abounds everywhere, untrampled by foot, unharmed by war.
In this form of artistic representation, the gardens of the nobility truly become a rich man’s Eden–full of life and luxury, without care or complaint. It was such a favorite place that this strata of society chose to pay large sums for tapestries bringing that natural delight into their spacious, often fortified homes. To me, this is telling of an inner yearning for serenity not often discussed in mainstream historical accounts of medieval and Renaissance life. We hear about the wars and the castles and the banquets, but what about those quiet walks in the garden? The tapestries tell us that these too were a cherished and meaningful part of these people’s experience.