Hans Memling (German-born Flemish painter, 1435-1494) Virgin and Child in Diptych of Jean de Cellier. The Virgin sits in a small, enclosed garden before a hedge wall, which seals off the spot from the remainder of the landscape. Mary is allegorically represented as a fortress. In The Gardener's Labyrinth of 1577, the 1st English gardening book, Thomas Hill (b 1528) declared, "The most commendable inclosure for every Garden plot, is a quick-set hedge, made with brambles & white thorne..."
Illustrated manuscripts and early depictions of landscapes in portrayals 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 contrived, formal gardens & in more natural cultural landscapes in images in the 1300s.
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.
Hortus conclusus is both an emblematic attribute & a title of the Virgin Mary in Medieval & Renaissance poetry & art, appearing in paintings & manuscript illuminations as well as a type of an actual garden form of the period which was enclosed both symbolically & actually. Since Mary's purity was seen as the equivalent of great beauty, the enclosed garden is often depicted as a "paradise garden" filled with flowers & aromatic plants. Paradise was originally a Persian name (paradeisos) for a park stocked with exotic animals, & the word Paradise was used by the Greeks to mean 'an ideal place.'
Hortus conclusus is a Latin term, meaning literally "enclosed garden." The secluded garden, or ‘hortus conclusus,’ was associated with the Virgin Mary usually in a monastery garden. After the fall of Rome, medieval Europe (500-1500 AD) was in transition. Rulers were fighting wars against other rival kings & Christians were launching crusades. Castles & monasteries were built high on hills or mountains & walls were erected to protect against invaders. Gardens usually were hedged or walled to protect not only against invading enemies but also against interlopers, thieves, & marauding livestock. Monasteries also followed this layout & there the garden is known as the the "cloister garden" from Latin claustrum, "enclosure." With the number of monasteries at their highest during the medieval period, increased of devotion to Mary popularized the hortus conclusus. The Mary Garden was most likely evolved from the monastery's cloister, a walled garden with a fountain or well in the center.
This enclosed garden (hortus conclusus) is the symbol of the Virgin's purity, with its peaceful mood, its protected area, its fruits & flowers. The image of the hortus conclusus is intended to evoke the ancient, original, pre-sin harmony of the universe, of divine, human, animal & vegetable worlds. The Virgin Mary, sitting in an enclosed garden or hortus conclusus, symbolizes her unassailable virginity. Mary was invulnerable, untouchable, sacrosanct, hallowed, faultless, immaculate, spotless, undefiled, uncorrupted.
Christian tradition asserts that Jesus Christ was conceived by the Holy Spirit to a young Mary miraculously without disrupting her virginity. As such, Mary in late medieval & Renaissance art, illustrating the Perpetual Virginity of Mary, was shown in or near a walled garden or yard. This was a representation of her Immaculate Conception, & also of her being protected, here by a wall or hedge, from sin.
The flowers grown & depicted in a garden dedicated to the Madonna took on a symbolism to represent the qualities of the Virgin Mary. The primary flowers are the rose (martyrdom); the lily (purity); & the violet (humility). Many representations of the hortus conclusus contain some of the Christian emblematic objects of the Immaculate Conception: an enclosed garden (hortus conclusus); a tall cedar - tree of life (cedrus exalta); a well of living waters (puteus aquarum viventium); an olive tree - tree of life (oliva speciosa); a fountain in the garden (fons hortorum); a rosebush (plantatio rosae). The fountain in the garden symbolizes the Virgin's purity & abundant giving. Occasionally, there is a unicorn which represents the mystical hunt, an allegory of the Incarnation. Not all depictions of medieval horti conclusi included these details.
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 format provided a linguistic culture of Christendom, expressed in the Song of Songs as allegory where the image of King Solomon's nuptial song to his bride was reinterpreted as the love & union between Christ & 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" from the Song expresses confirmation of the doctrine of Mary's Immaculate Conception-birth without Original Sin ("macula" is Latin for spot).
When the Virgin sits in a small, enclosed garden within a hedge of thorny roses or surrounded by a wall, Mary is allegorically represented as a fortress. For the medieval woman, the enclosed garden was designed to prove & maintain her loyalty. 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 beloveds & wives remained inaccessible to rapists or suitors.