The Garden in VILLETTE
Tuesday, January 24, 2017 at 8:08AM
Mark Scarbrough in Charlotte Brontë, Villette

It's hard to miss the symbolism: Lucy Snowe, a reclusive and reticent narrator, is drawn to a garden and its secret alley behind what was once a convent, now a school where girls plan their sexual escapades.

The root of this garden in VILLETTE probably isn't the garden of Eden, although that image lies far back behind it. Instead, it's the medieval notion of a hortus conclusus, a walled garden, a secret place, and perhaps an attempt to find a little bit of Eden in this world.

The notion of a hortus conclusus probably got started with the Virgin Mary and the Annunciation. In the Renaissance, Mary is most often placed indoors to receive Gabriel's news that she will give birth to Jesus. But early representations usually placed her outdoors, most often in a small enclosed space like this:

Yes, there she is, in a garden like Eden. Mary, whose son will save the world, is the new hope, placed in a site that reminds us of humanity's original sin. But there are several other reasons for her placement. Mary's purity is stressed, since she is set apart from the world in this walled space. Often, her domesticity is highlighted as she spins, knits, or does other household crafts. And her fertility is emphasized, since she's surrounded by flowers and fruit trees. Indeed, some mystics went so far as to indentify Mary herself (or a least her uterus) as the ultimate hortus conclusus.

By the late Middle Ages, the hortus conclusus most often had a fountain at the center, sometimes with four walkways that divided it into four quadrants. It had also become a very social place--or more specifically, a place where women gathered to do household tasks or just enjoy each other's company. Again, it's hard to miss the symbolism: in a culture obsessed with virginity, women have the most freedom in a walled space that contains its (their?) fertility. Here's a scene by an anonymous German painter, der Meister des Frankfurter Paradiesgärtleins. While it venerates the Virgin, it also looks like a common day out in the garden for her and her staff. Notice the presence of a couple of men who clearly pose no threat, even if they are wooing the ladies.

By the 1400s, the ideal of the hortus conclusus was found throughout European culture. Indeed, the inner cloister in an abbey or a convent (like this one at Senanque in southern France) is itself modeled on the hortus conclusus. If you consider that the hortus conclusus was itself a symbol of Mary's virginity, then you can see the full iconography: monks, themselves celibate, walking the cloisters that border the garden without ever entering it.

Perhaps one of the most famous representations of the hortus conclusus is the tapestry cycle now in the Cluny in Paris, now called "The Lady and the Unicorn." These images have been resistant to interpretation. There is still much debate about what they mean. They may be fully secular in nature, a knightly romance tale come to thread--or they may be a complex allegory of Mary's virginity and her ability to capture the elusive and unique unicorn in her garden, perhaps a reference to Christ. But there is no debate that was depicted is a hortus conclusus.

All this said, a hortus conclusus is a secret place where women meet in safety and where the very threats to their safety are expressed (for example, both a place to preserve women from rape and to institutionalize their status as inferior beings in need of protection). It is itself associated with both frustrated and expressed sexuality.

And in case you think the hortus conclusus has fallen out of modern discourse, here's a contemporary work of art by Hans Rüngeler (born in 1957) called, in fact, "Hortus Conclusus."

 

Article originally appeared on The Norfolk Library Book Group (http://norfolklibrarybookgroup.squarespace.com/).
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