Upper Rhenish Master: The Little Garden of
Paradise, c. 1410
"A garden inclosed is my spouse"
The painting, measuring 26.3 x 33.4cm, is approximately the size of our
reproduction. The work dates from c. 1410, and is now in the Stadel, Frankfurt.
It shows a detail of a past world: the sequestered corner of a garden within a
The sole function of castles at that time was to provide protection. Conflicts
between nobles were far less likely to be resolved by the emperor or his courts
than by attack and defence. Fighting was a part of life at every level of
society. The wall in the picture shields the peaceful garden scene from a
The scene is also secluded from the confusion and discomforts of everyday life:
excrement on the roads, stray dogs and pigs everywhere, the stench, cramped
gloom and cold of the dwellings, the constant presence of sickness and poverty.
The garden idyll shows a pictorial antidote to the hardships endured by the
people of the time.
Gardens designed for pleasure were less common in 1410 than today. The first
gardens in northern climes dated from the Roman occupation, but these
disappeared with the collapse of the Roman Empire and the subsequent chaos of
mass migration. With the spread of monastic life the idea of the garden again
crossed the Alps, though the new horticulture was generally motivated by
pragmatic rather than aesthetic considerations. Spices and medicinal herbs were
grown in the cloister quadrangle, at whose centre stood a well. Part of the
quadrangle was often set aside as a burial ground for the monks.
Monastic herb gardens soon expanded to include vegetables and fruit. The
monasteries spread northward, bringing new agricultural techniques to the rural
population and awakening their sympathy for Nature. There is a famous story
about Abbot Wa-lahfried, who, from 838, was head of Rei-chenau Abbey on Lake
Constance: "When the seeds sprout tender shoots, Walahfried fetches fresh water
in a large vessel and carefully waters the tiny shoots from the cupped palm of
his hand so that the seeds are not hurt by a sudden gush of water ..."
Abbot Walahfried was mainly concerned with questions of labour and harvesting.
It was not until 1200 that the garden was reinvented as a place of relaxation
and enjoyment. Beauty emerged as a central criterion: the visitor was to spend
his time in a pleasurable manner. Albertus Magnus (c. 1200-1280) of Cologne, a
wise and learned father of the church, was a passionate advocate of gardens, and
much of his advice relating to their design is found on the present panel.
Entitled The Little Garden of Paradise, it was executed some two hundred years
later by an unknown Upper Rhenish master. According to the 13th-century sage, a
garden should have "a raised sward, decked with pleasant flowers ... suitable
for sitting ... and delightful repose". The trees were to stand well apart "for
they may otherwise keep out the fresh breeze and thus impair our well-being". A
"pleasure garden" should contain "a spring set in stone,... for its purity will
be a source of much delectation".
A legend for every saint
The artist has filled the castle garden with holy personages. The largest figure
is Mary, wearing her heavenly crown and looking down at a book. She has no
throne, but sits on a cushion in front of, and therefore below, the terraced
part of the lawn. Contemporary spectators attributed significance to the
relative height at which a figure sat. Though Mary was the Queen of Heaven, she
was also humble and modest: "Behold the handmaid of the Lord."
Contemporaries of the Upper Rhenish master would have had little trouble naming
the other women. They would not have identified them by their faces, however, to
each of which the artist has lent the same gentle charm: small, very dark eyes,
a small mouth with a spot of shadow under the lower lip.
Saints and other holy persons could be identified by the objects or activities
attributed to them. St. Dorothy, for example, is shown with a basket. According
to legend, she was asked on her way to a martyr's death to send flowers and
fruits from heaven; she prayed before her execution, and immediately a boy
appeared with the divine gift - in a basket. Here, beyond the grave, she picks
her cherries herself.
A legend was attributed to every saint, so a painting of this kind would have
been full of stories to a contemporary spectator. However, some figures may have
been more difficult to identify than St. Dorothy. St. Barbara, seen here drawing
water from a spring, is shown without her usual attributes: a tower and chalice.
Apparently, the artist could not find a place for them in his garden scene.
Those who were acquainted with her legend, however, knew that her bones could
work miracles, bringing water to dried up rivers and ending droughts. In
contrast to the verdant growth of the surrounding garden, the area around the
well is dry and stony. A realist might infer that the grass around the well had
been trodden down by the many people who came to draw water. However, a pious
spectator would recognize the dry ground referred to in the legend, which the
saint waters with a chained spoon to make it fertile.
The woman holding the medieval string intrument, a psaltery, for the child Jesus
is probably St. Catherine of Alexandria. It was said that Mary and Jesus
appeared to her in a dream. Touching her finger, Jesus had told her he was
wedded to her through faith. On waking, she found a ring on her finger.
According to medieval belief St. Catherine was closer to Jesus than any woman
but Mary, which explains the position given to her by the artist.
Although the gospels make no reference to Jesus making music, medieval art often
portrayed him as a musician. An illumination of c. 1300 shows him playing a
violin, while an inscription reads: "Manifold joys Lord Jesus brings, to souls
he is the sound of strings." Music was a sign of spiritual, or heavenly joy. The
artist, unable to depict bliss by facial expression, chose a string instrument
as a vehicle instead, a gesture understood by the contemporary spectator.
Red rose and white lily - flowers in praise
Like the string instrument, many details of the Little Garden of Paradise stand
for something other than themselves. They are the signs and symbols of a
pictorial language with which the majority of people in the Middle Ages were
acquainted. Very few people could read at the time; in order to spread the
faith, the church therefore needed a language of pictures, or, as we might call
it today, a form of non-verbal communication.
Even the garden itself was a symbol, not merely the appropriate scene for a
congregation of holy persons. Gardens were synonymous with paradise, presumably
because of the Old Testament Garden of Eden. The unknown artist emphasizes the
paradisial character of the garden by showing flowers in blossom which usually
bloom in different seasons. He also avoids any sign of toil, to which Adam and
Eve were condemned on their expulsion from the Garden of Eden.
A paradisial scene with a wall would be interpreted as a hortus conclusus, an
enclosed garden. Walls do not usually have a place in paradise, but this one
symbolizes Mary's virginity, underlining the special status of "Our Blessed
Lady"; for accord ing to Christian belief Mary conceived without
penetration. This pictorial symbol, too, derives from the
Old Testament, from an image in the Song of Solomon: "A
garden inclosed is my sister, my spouse ..."
Various superimposed layers of imagery interlace and merge
in this painting; their independence is not painstakingly
defined in the way we might wish it today. Thus paradise is
represented not only by the garden but also by Mary herself:
like paradise, where sexuality does not exist, Mary's
immaculate conception places her in a permanently paradisial
state. In a paean composed by the poet Conrad of Wiirzburg,
who died in 1287, Mary is "a living paradise filled with
many noble flowers".
The table situated in Mary's immediate proximity emphasizes,
like the height at which she sits, the Queen of Heaven's
modesty, her status as the "handmaid" of God's divine
purpose. In practice, the stone-carved hexagonal tables
found in many paintings of the time were used for picnics
Various flowers also characterise the Holy Virgin. In
several parts of Germany the primrose - seen at the right
edge of the painting - is still known as the
Himmels-schlussel, or "key to heaven"; for it was Mary who
opened Man's door to heaven. The violets are another symbol
of modesty, while the white lilies represent the Virgin's
purity. The rose was a medieval symbol of the Holy Virgin
and, indeed, of virginity in general; the branches with
roses have no thorns.
The flowers in this garden would make up a veritable bouquet
of virtues - gathered, of course, with the female spectators
of the painting in mind.
These signs, allusions and symbols stand for something which
eludes direct representation. Modern man has learned to
distinguish clearly and coolly between the thing and the
symbol. People 500 years ago saw one within the other: Mary
was painted as a humble woman, an enclosed garden and a
rose, her purity revered in the whiteness of the lily; thus
God's history of salvation revealed itself through Nature. A
painting of this kind was more than a theological treatise.
A tree stump stands for sinful humanity
How a sinless Madonna could possibly spring from a humanity burdened by original
sin and expelled from paradise was a subject which gave rise to much racking of
brains. The artist of the Little Garden of Paradise makes a contribution to the
debate in the form of a tree stump from which grow two new shoots: which is as
much as to say that even an old tree can bring forth new life.
To ensure spectators knew the tree stump stood for sinful humanity, the Upper
Rhenish master painted a small devil next to it. To contend that devils, dead
dragons or pollarded trees do not really belong in paradise would be to grant
inappropriate weight to logic.
The fact that the three figures near the devil and dragon are male can be
ascertained from the colour of their faces, which are darker in hue than those
of the women. Apart from colour, however, their faces follow the same pattern as
those of the women: men and women have the same eyes, the same mouths, and even
the same tapering fingers.
Two of the three male figures are easily identified. The one wearing greaves and
chain mail is Sir George who liberated a virginal princess from the power of a
dragon. Paintings that show George doing battle with the dragon generally make
the mythical beast enormous and threatening; here it is shrunk to little more
than a trademark. The angel with the headdress and the beautiful wings is
Michael. He it was who hurled devils into the abyss, one of whom sits,
well-behaved, at his feet: dragons and devils are powerless in paradise.
The identity of the standing male figure remains obscure, with no hint of the
artist's intention. If we look hard enough, however, we find a black bird just
behind his knees. Black is the colour of death. Perhaps the panel was painted in
memory of a young man who died. Its small format suggests it was intended for a
private dwelling rather than a church. The tree around which the young man's
arms are clasped appears to grow from his heart - an ancient symbol of eternal
On the other hand, it is possible that the young man was St. Oswald. In Oswald's
legend a raven acts as a divine messenger, carrying away the pious man's right
arm when he falls in battle against the heathens. Yet another story! The
spectator of 1410 would have found the picture full of stones combining
religious teaching and entertainment. As an act of veneration dedicated to the
Virgin Mary, the painting itself became an object of reverence, bringing solace
to the faithful. It showed a better world in store for those who left this vale
of tears. The artistic quality of the painting, so fascinating to today's museum
visitor, was undoubtedly admired at the time. In terms of the panel's
significance as a religious work, however, it meant relatively little.
Woodpecker, goldfinch and waxwing
Bliss in the life hereafter was not the only subject of
paintings like this. Besides the garden of paradise there
were also Gardens of Love, celebrations of worldly
happiness. These did not depict sensuality in a crude
manner, but harked back to the Arcadia of heathen antiquity,
itself closely related to the idea of paradise. The effect
was to show heaven on earth, so to speak.
As the subject of religious art, the garden of paradise did
not last more than a few decades. By the second half of the
15th century it had practically disappeared: a late blossom,
embedded in a medieval language of symbols. The worldly
Garden of Love, however, a more readily comprehensible
topic, appeared again and again in a variety of different
forms. Manet's Dejeuner sur Vherbe is a more recent example.
The Garden of Love was a literary topos before it found its
way into painting. The most well-known example today is
Boccaccio's Decameron, written in Florence some 60 years
before the Little Garden of Paradise was painted in the
region of the Upper Rhine. The setting of these works is
remarkably similar: the young Florentines tell each other
stories in a garden "surrounded by walls", in the middle of
which is a "lawn of fine grass adorned with a thousand
brightly coloured flowers", where water gushes from a little
fountain, "gently splashing ... into a wonderfully clear
well". Here men and women did not sit apart on their best
behaviour, for all who were present "strolled together,
weaving the loveliest wreathes of manifold sprigs" and
telling each other erotic tales.
The French Romance of the Rose predates the Italian
Decameron by over a century. It also sings love's joys and
complaints, is set in a garden and, like Boccaccio's
Decameron, was read widely in Europe by the educated elite
of the day. In both books, feelings of happiness are
accompanied by birdsong. In the Romance of the Rose we read:
"Their song was comparable to that of the angels in heaven."
And only three sentences later: "One was inclined to believe
it was not birdsong at all but the voices of sea-sirens."
Whether angels or sirens, divine messengers, or se-ductresses
who were half beast, half human, whether Christian figures
or those of antiquity, the example shows the essential
ambiguity of all pictorial symbols at the time. Even
spectators of a Christian garden of paradise would know that
painted birds were there not only to sing God's praises.
The birds in the Little Garden of Paradise are rendered
accurately. Zoologists have distinguished at least ten
different species: great tit, oriole, bullfinch, chaffinch,
robin, woodpecker, goldfinch, wax-wing, hoopoe and blue tit.
Had he been concerned solely with angelic music, the artist
might have painted the birds as schematically as the faces
of his saints. But he evidently wished to emphasize their
variety, just as he did with the plants. He wanted to show
what he saw; he wanted to be exact. The plants testify to
this, with some 20 identifiable species.
Exact zoological observation betrays an interest in natural
science. This was new in a painting of c. 1410. While it is
true that birds and flowers were frequently painted with
some degree of accuracy, they had rarely been rendered with
such a powerful inclination to catalogue empirical data.
Medieval painting was usually dominated by religion. While
this painting might appear to confirm the rule, it also
illustrates a growing awareness of Nature; no longer mere
adornment, the distinctive presence of a natural world is
felt as strongly here as that of the holy figures. However,
it was not until the next century that the first botanic
gardens were created in Germany: at Leipzig in 1580, and at
Heidelberg in 1597.
The discovery and scientific exploration of Nature were
first steps on the long road to modernity. The Little Garden
of Paradise lends visibility to that phase of intellectual
history. However, the beauty of the painting also resides in
the harmony, evidently still attainable, between religious
and realistic views of the world: two types of experience
which did not appear to present the dichotomy felt by
Christians in the Western world today.
Paul, Jean & Herman Limburg
Gherardo di Jacopo Starnina