Illustrated manuscripts and early depictions of Biblical gardens give us a glimpse of gardens familiar & imagined during those periods. Many images of medieval gardens are allegorical or metaphorical, rather than realistic representations of specific medieval gardens. The Virgin Mary begins to appear in both contrived, formal gardens & in more natural cultural landscape images in the 1300s.Attributed to Master of Flémalle or Robert Campin (1375-1444) Madonna by a Grassy Bank. The Virgin and Child in a hortus conclusus (enclosed garden) with Angels, c 1430. This is also is in the form of a Madonna of Humility seated on the ground - to indicate her humility. She is sitting in a bed of wildflowers.
Themes traditionally associated with the Madonna are combined here: the Madonna of Humility appears in a Hortus Conclusus, or enclosed garden. In the hortus coclusus, Mary is allegorically represented as a fortress. From a practical perspective, for the medieval woman, the enclosed garden was designed to prove & maintain her loyalty to her entitled spouse. Purity of the bloodlines was a great socital concern for the medieval husband. When kings & lords left home to go to battle, they wanted to feel assured; that their wives remained inaccessible to rapists or suitors.
Madonna of Humility refers to artistic portrayals of a humble Virgin Mary depicting her sitting on the ground, or sitting upon a low cushion. Humility was a virtue extolled by Saint Francis of Assisi, and this style of image was a favorite of Franciscan piety. The word humility, from the Latin humus, meaning earth or ground (humus = humilitas.) One of the most popular visual representations of the Virgin toward the end of the Middle Ages is the image of Mary as the Virgin of Humility. An early image in this style is the fresco of Simone Martini painted v. 1335-40 above the door under the west porch of the Cathedral of Avignon. The fresco shows the Virgin holding the child Jesus in her arms, sitting on the ground. This theme emerges at a period in the history of Christianity, when negative religious connotations of the earth faded replaced by the concept of nature as a creative force.
A Mead is a medieval garden designed to imitate a small meadow or sometimes a larger, natural meadow. A Flowery Mead is a medieval term for a lawn rich in wild flowers. A flowery mead is often one of the essential components of a medieval garden. The flowery mead is seldom depicted within a distinct, geometric, larger garden. Albertus Magnus (c 1200-1280), a German Dominican friar & a Catholic bishop, was a great admirer of lawns & flowery meads "For the sight is in now way so pleasantly refreshed as by fine and close grass kept short." Most writers recommend digging out the original 'waste' plants, killing the seeds in the soil by flooding with boiling water, then laying out the lawn with curves laid in and pounded well. Another writer recommended mowing them twice a year; lawn mowing would have been done with scythes or primitive shears. The flowery mead is one of the essential components of a medieval garden. Poet Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375) in his Decameronof 1348 wrote "in the midst of the garden a lawn of very fine grass, so green it seemed nearly black, colored with perhaps a thousand kind of flowers……shut in with very green citrus & orange trees bearing, at the same time, both ripe fruit & young fruit & flowers so that they pleased the sense of smell as well as charmed the eyes with shade."
The earliest surviving works of this particular portrayal of the Virgin are found in frescoes & panel paintings in Italy & Avignon from the 1340s. Robert Campin, 1375-1444, who is now usually identified as the artist known as the Master of Flémalle, is considered one of the first great masters of Flemish and Early Netherlandish painting.