The Metropolitan Museum’s Cloisters, high on a bluff in Fort Tryon Park, has a number of chapels and thematic rooms with a collection of European art from the (Western) Middle Ages.
Architecture as vegetal tracery (Astwerk)
Man of Sorrows and Mourning Virgin, pot-metal and colourless glass with vitreous paint and silver stain; c. 1480.
Lautenberg Master (Strasbourg Workshop Collective), Alsace, now France. Cloisters Collection, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY
Among these buildings are four cloisters reconstructed like them of architectural elements brought from Europe.
One cloister, the Saint-Guilhem , is floored with marble and roofed with glass and has pots of palms and ferns.
Three cloisters are planted with flora.
The largest, the Cuxa Cloister, contains the Judy Black Garden: a mixture of native and non-native plants cornered by four crabapple trees.
In winter, the Cuxa arcade is glassed in to overwinter tropical and sensitive plants.
In a third cloister, the Trie Garden, the millefleur composition of the Cloisters’ four Unicorn tapestries is the model.
The Unicorn in Captivity, wool, silk, silver and gilded-silver-wrapped thread, South Netherlandish, 1495-1505.
Photo from the web The Metropolitan Museum Cloisters, NY
The Unicorn tapestries do not conform to any known story, Christian or other. Its meaning is not known.
Perhaps their real subject matter is the flora and the pleasures of the seasons in which the unicorn, even corralled, is finally at rest.
The Unicorn in Captivity
The Trie is a meadow garden incorporating grasses and flowers used in these tapestries. Cultivated, it is also less structured than the other Cloister gardens;
and appears wild, as in a dream.
The fourth cloister contains a herbiary: the Bonnefont Herb Garden.
The basis of the raised beds of the Bonnefont is a list of 89 species of herbs ordered by Charlemagne, 742-814 ACE, to be grown on his estates.
To this have been added plants and herbs known to have been used in Medieval times in Europe for
fragrance and beauty
religious and classical symbolism
magic for love and fertility; and for harm.
The 2023 inventory of herbs and bushes is 290. Here are a few of them with photos taken in May and June 2018 and 2023.
The Bonnefont Cloister overlooks the Hudson River
In its center is a marble cistern.
surrounded by four quince trees (Cydonia oblonga).
Some of their branches are hung with stones to train them.
About the hurdles and supports used in this garden, the museum notes that
‘ (they) are made from willow from the Somerset Levels (wetlands) in England; willow has been grown and woven in Somerset since the late Iron Age. Willow work is still commercially produced in the region and the same family has made (these) wattle elements for many years….’
The garden in May
A pear tree has been espaliered on one wall.
Hops are trained onto another wall.
Common Hops (Humulus lupulus)
English ivy grows below a Cornelian cherry tree (Cornus mas)
Myrtle (Myrtus communis).
The old symbol of a happy marriage.
Laurel, Sweet Bay (Laurus nobilis)
The Met notes that… ‘the laurel was an attribute of the poet Apollo, who pursued the nymph Daphne until she metamorphosed into a laurel tree. The laurel was thus the crown of poets…
‘it was also consecrated to the Vestal Virgins because of its evergreen properties, perceived as purity uncorrupted by decay.
‘As an emblem of chastity and immortality, the laurel appears in religious paintings, especially those depicting the Virgin Mary and the saints…’
Common Oleander (Nerium oleander) in May and June. Poison
Madonna lily (Lilium candidum) in May and June
The most well-known of the flowers associated with the Virgin Mary; both with the Annunciation and with the visit of Mary to her cousin Elizabeth.
The Met notes:
…'(Lilium candidum) is emblematic of Mary’s virginity, and almost every painting purporting to depict this visit has a vase of these lilies, usually with three blossoms, included.
‘The pure white sepals are symbolic of her spotless body and the six golden anthers of her soul sparkling with divine light….
Apothecary’s Rose (Rosa gallica var. officinalis)
White Rose of York (Rosa x alba, Rosa sempiplena)
Bladder Cherry, Chinese Lantern with immature fruit (Physalis alkekengi)
Common Fig (Ficus carica)
Dittany of Crete (Origanum dictamnus)
Dittany Burning Bush (Dictamnus albus). Poison
Golden Marguerite (Anthemis tinctoria)
Dragon’s Arum (Dracunulus vulgaris). Magical. Medicinal
The Met notes that the arums are pollinated by flies and the plant’s flowers have the smell of rotting meat in order to attract flies.
Meadow Rue (Thalictrum aquilegifolium)
Cowslip (primula veris)
Feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium)
Vervain, Holy Herb, Holy Vervain (verbena officianalis). Magical. Medicinal
Noted by the Met to be one of the most popular of magical/medicinal plants in the Western tradition. Photo above is from the Met’s website.
Sweet Violet (Viola odorata). Fragrance. Medicinal. Food. Photo from the Met’s website
The Met notes:
…’Although the rich, blue-purple flowers are showy and fragrant, they are sterile. Violets produce an abundance of nectar, but they bloom well before bee season in cooler climates.
The plants propagate themselves by sending out runners, and set seed only in the fall, when much smaller, colorless, inconspicuous flowers are borne without petals. These self-pollinated flowers do not open, and are scentless….’
Betony (Stachys officinalis). Medicinal. Magical
Aconite, monkshood (Aconitum napellus). Poison
Pennyroyal (Menthia pulegium). Medicinal.
Photo from the Met’s website.
Common lungwort (Pulmanaria officinalis)
Wallflower (Erysimum cheiri)
Comfrey (Symphytum officinale)
Clary (Salvia sclarea)
Rue, Herb of Grace (Ruta graveolens)
Alecost, Costmary (Tanacetum balsamita).
Used for brewing before the adoption of hops in the 15th century.
Moleplant, caper splurge (Euphorbia lathyris)
Milk thistle (Silybum marianum)
Blessed Thistle (Cnicus benedictus)
Cotton thistle (Onopordum acanthium)
Carline Thistle (Carlina vulgaris)
The Met notes: …’The generic name derives from Emperor Charlemagne. It is said that a dreadful plague decimated his army, and he prayed that the rest of his soldiery be delivered from the pestilence.
‘In a dream, an angel instructed him to shoot an arrow into the air, and mark where it struck the ground. The herb that it pierced would provide the cure he sought.’
Flowers of medicinal rhubarb (Rheum officinale). Medicinal. Poison
The Met notes that rhubarb was not eaten as a food until well after the Middle Ages when sugar became abundant. It has a very long history as a medicine; and its leaves can be poisonous.
Italian Arum (Arum italicum)
Mandrake (Mandragora officinarum) in May and in June. Poison.
Made famous by Harry Potter, the mandrake has a very long history as a medicinal and a poison. Its roots appear often to represent human beings. It is said to emit a shriek when dug up; after which the digger needs to beware his/her fate.
….’The mandrakes give a smell, and at our gates are all manner of pleasant fruits, new and old, which I have laid up for thee, O my beloved…’ Song of Solomon, 7:13
Lady’s Bedstraw (Galium verum) in May and in June
Stinging nettle (Urtica dioica). Poison
Birthwort (Aristolochia clematitis). Poison
Weld (Resela luteola)
Herb Robert (Geranium robertianum). Medicinal
The Met notes:
…’Hildegard (of Bingen, c. 1098-1179) recommends a powder made of herb Robert mixed with a little powdered feverfew or nutmeg sprinkled and eaten on bread, or licked from the hand, for pain in the heart.
‘According to Hildegard, this same powder could be snuffed up the nose for congestion, or baked into cakes and eaten for cough or constriction of the lungs. Dissolved and drunk in warm wine, the powder alleviated chest pain, sore throat, and loss of voice….’
Scarlet Pimpernel (Anagallis arvensis)
St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum)
Common mullein (Verbascum thapsus)
Flax (Usum usitatissimum)
Rye (Secale cereale)
Woad (Isatis tinctoria) in flower in May and in seed in June
Fuller’s Teasel (Dipsacus sativus)
The Met notes that this species of cultivated teasel was used for carding wool.
Lady’s Mantle (Alchemilla vulgaris)
Common Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)
Bistort, Adderwort (Persicaria bistorta)
Ox-eye daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare)
Herb Bennet, Wood Avens (Geum urbanum)
Sneezewort (Achillea ptarmica). Magic
Wild pansy, Heartsease (Viola tricolor)
Sea Holly, Sea Eryngo (Eringium maritium)
Common Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare)
Horseradish (Armoracia rusticana)
Sweet Cicely (Myhrris odorata)
Elecampane, Horseheal (Inula helenium)
Acanthus, Bear’s Breech (Acanthus mollis)
Sea kale (Crambe maritima) in bloom in May
Chicory, succory (Chicorium intybus)
Red Valerian (Centranthus ruber)
Garden Sorrel (Rumex acetosa)
English lavender (lavandula angustifolia)
Black Horehound (Ballota nigra)
Southernwood (Artemisia abrotanum)
Love-in-a-Mist (Nigella damascena)
This herb garden is the work and wonder of human and plant intelligence; of human creativity and need in its medieval, Christian, European form, to nourish physical, emotional, social and spiritual need.
A grounding for our long memory and enduring comfort.