A guest post by Maria Zygogianni:
Fascination with the garden is inextricably linked with human nature. The enclosed garden is employed as the birthplace of life or the garden of the dead where life ends in mythology and religion. Supernatural loci, such as the Isle of Avalon, Eden, the Garden of Hesperides, straddle the real and the imaginary. Medieval geographers have tried to make these concepts tangible by associating them with actual geographical locations. According to Genesis, Eden is located between four rivers:
The name of the one is Phison (Ganges): that is it which compasseth all the land of Hevilath, where gold groweth. And the gold of that land is very good: there is found bdellium, and the onyx stone. And the name of the second river is Gehon (Nile): the same is it that compasseth all the land of Ethiopia. And the name of the third river is Tigris: the same passeth along by the Assyrians. And the fourth river is Euphrates. And the Lord God took man, and put him into the paradise of pleasure, to dress it, and to keep it (Douay-Rheims Bible).
Much to the frustration of explorers, such as Cosmas Indicopleustes, the discovery of the worldly Paradise eluded them. The hortus conclusus, in its many forms, has captivated the artistic imagination as well.
Figure 1. The Garden of Hesperides, 1892, Frederic Leighton, Lady Lever Art Gallery, Liverpool, Public Domain [Wikimedia Commons]
Frederic Leighton’s depiction of the Garden of Hesperides, a space of eternal bliss where the nymphs of the evening dwelt, highlights three features common to most of these Other-worlds; an apple tree, a strong female presence, and a snake/dragon.
While the most prominent figures of the garden in cultural history are religious, the secular garden has found its place in folklore, literature, and the arts as well. An international art project, THE GARDEN- End of Times, Beginning of Times, will be launched in the summer of 2017, in Aarhus, the cultural capital of Europe for 2017. THE GARDEN zone will cover the past, starting from the Baroque period, the present garden, in Aarhus city centre, and the future, along the coast and in the forest by the city. The project looks at the changing relationship between man and nature and the interesting choice of location seems to bring the garden in conversation with the landscape (the enclosed museum space, the urban city centre, the forest, and the sea).
Figure 2.Grandmother’s Garden, 1869, Kristian Zahrtmann, Bornholm Art Museum, Public Domain [Wikimedia Commons]
The secular garden, still, remains an Other-world, a heterotopia
. A heterotopia is a space real and imaginary, in and outside of society, which encloses people in crisis, such as a boarding house, a prison, or a home for the elderly.
The contemporary garden attracts individuals in crisis; the artists, the elderly, the youth. The Eden Festival, is such an example. This music festival aims to support artists, involve the young people and the community, bringing the audience in an otherwise overlooked area. And their tagline captures the charm and danger of the garden-space:
“Sometimes you eat the garden, sometimes the garden eats you”
The secular garden is primarily a space of pleasure where one grows flowers or vegetable and fruit. A private and protected space, it is a common addition to the house and a source of inspiration for crafts and decoration.
Figure 3. Wall decoration, Kosmeteio Foundation, Athens
The image left shows a mpanda, a wall-hanging carpet/blanket, common to Greek households, which was used to keep the house warm and decorate. Such wall-hangings would often depict gardens as a space of social gathering, with a female figure, or animals. Despite the apparently mundane nature of the garden, it remains an irresistible, but dangerous space. Rapunzel’s mother cannot resist the urge to eat a rampion from Dame Gothel’s garden and her husband sneaks into the forbidden garden to steal the plant. Caught by the witch, he promises to give her the baby and in exchange take everything he needs from her garden. The evil Gothel takes the girl and imprisons her in a tower in the middle of a forest.
The garden remains gendered in Margaret Atwood’s Lady Oracle. Joan Foster, the protagonist of the novel, is writing one of her costume gothics set in a manor with an impressive, albeit sinister, maze in the garden. Charlotte, the heroine, is magnetised by the labyrinth and cannot keep away despite the fact that the Redmond’s former wives all disappeared, and were presumably murdered, there. When she enters, she finds them thriving and well in the heart of the garden-labyrinth, explaining that in this Other-space they are free. Joan Foster’s heroine and Joan herself discover the feminine garden, a safe space that empowers them and shields them from the destructive, vampiric men in their lives.
Cultural representations of the hortus conclusus suggest the power of this feminine space and its influence on the artistic imagination. The commonplace secular garden is no less supernatural than its religious counterparts; through the lens of heterotopia, a space of transformation and liberation, but also destruction and imprisonment, the image of the enclosed garden has permeated both life and culture throughout human history.