Saturday, February 22, 2014

Religion as Seen Through the Garden

Question: In the three cultures we have so far studied - Roman, MediƦval and Muslim - how did /does the garden play a role in their respective religions? 

As can be seen through Ancient Roman, Medieval and Islamic history the garden manifests the role and practice of religion in different cultures. The garden is used and designed in a variety of different ways, but as religion (and by extension garden design) evolved through each culture the ideas and designs were incorporated and reflected in subsequent or parallel cultures.

To the Romans, religion acted as a mutual exchange. The devotion and faith expressed by Christians was not the dominant theme of Roman religious worship. Instead the Romans thought of religion as a give and take relationship where gods were worshiped and in return the devotee expected something. This idea was expressed in the garden throughout the many statues and shrines (aediculas) that displayed the gods. Venus, the god of gardens and vineyards, as well as Pariapus, the god of fertility were often placed in Roman Gardens. 

When Rome fell and Europe “went dark,” Christianity was becoming more and more popular. As a consequence, Medieval gardens began to take on new religious significance. These christian gardens began in monasteries and were erected in enclosed courtyards. They were purposed toward religious discussions, teachings and reflection. As the medieval ages progressed and the church amassed more power the significance of the garden evolved. Gardens were to become a representation of Eden. They were enclosed and signified purity, freedom and uncorrupted nature. Hence they become identified with The Virgin Mary. She was pure and uncorrupted and thus a perfect addition to Eden’s garden. Mary was represented in the garden in a variety of ways. Firstly, she is often painted in scenes of the garden. Further, she has her own flowers that represent her purity and grace: the red rose, white lily and purple violet. Monastic gardens continue the trend of religious significance by utilizing a quadripartite design. That is, a garden divided into four sections and separated by four small streams or walkways. These segments were supposed to represent the four rivers of life that flow out of the garden in Eden (Pishon, Gihon, Tigris and the Euphrates). The adjacent picture shows not only the four sections, but the further allusion to the tree of life. 

The gardens of Islam picked up on many of the same themes of the Medieval, christian gardens. The four rivers of life are again represented in Islamic gardens, but as the rivers of water, wine, milk and honey. These layouts are sometimes referred to as Chahar Bagh. Thus, the intricate intermingling of christianity and Islam can be seen throughout the garden. Unlike the Christian garden focus on a pre-human times, Islamic gardens are focused on the afterlife, i.e. “Jannat al-firdaws,” or gardens of paradise. The garden of paradise is the place where devout Muslims go when they die.

The evolution of religion as seen through the garden is one way to analyze different ways in which cultures practice and approach religion. 

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For more information on the role religion played in the garden check out:

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Why do you think gardens have always been an intrinsic part of European culture?

There are, in my opinion, three answers to the question posed above. The first is a more generalized answer that could be applied to the importance of gardens in any continent. That is, subsistence. Gardens allowed peasants, craftsmen and merchants to subsidize their menial income with home grown food. 

Of course, this answer is incomplete because all gardens are not planted specifically for subsistence, which brings us to the essence of the question at hand: why are gardens an intrinsic part of European culture.
The intrinsic nature of the garden in Europe is epitomized by the dissemination and evolution of religion. To take one example, the Roman gardens often contained elements such as statues of gods and goddesses  as well as aediculas (small shrines to the gods or religious figures). As the Romans converted to Christianity they carried with them the sacred characteristics of the garden, i.e. the garden as a representation of the Garden in Eden. Even when the fall of the Roman empire transitioned Europe into the Medieval ages, the garden remained intricately tied to religion. Monasteries created utilitarian herb and vegetable gardens that provided food for the monks. As the church began to amass large sums of money the garden and the meaning and function therein changed. Monasteries started to build cloisters, which were gardens dedicated to the studying, teaching of religious themes and often featured religious themes: the tree of life, the four rivers of life, etc. 

Religion is interwoven throughout the fabric of European history and a natural counterpart to religion was the garden, hence the gardens intrinsic place in European culture.
However, the church was not the only institution that solidified the garden as an intrinsic aspect of European culture. Royalty and Nobility make up the final piece of this puzzle. From early ancient Europe, gardens have been associated with wealth and power: the palace of Versailles, the garden at the Chateau Villandry and Herrenhausen Gardens in Hannover, to name just a few.

Due to the Europe’s history of turbulent royal regimes and the necessity of establishing power and wealth in the threat of domination, the garden was permanently sewn into the fabric of European culture.
Subsistence, religion and royalty are the three prongs to the intrinsic nature of the garden in Europe. 

Check out this wikipedia article for more information on the history of gardens: