Christian symbols in garden design

Christian symbol in a designed garden

This Christian symbol, in the garden of a chuch in India, is pleasing - and startling: it highlights the LACK OF CHRISTIAN SYMBOLS in European gardens, be they sacred or secular.

Ian McHarg, the most influential landscape architect of the twentieth century, criticised the Book of Genisis for giving man dominion over our planet’s animials and plants ‘And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.’ (Genesis 1:26) McHarg, following Lynn White, saw this as a Biblical basis for not recognizing rights in non-human life. McHarg thought it was a reason for Christians not identifying an ethical duty to conserve the environment, biodiversity or ‘wild nature’. Forests, for example, which were associated with paganism, need only be conserved if, as part of their ‘dominion’, humans make this choice in their own interest. Aldo Leopold, who trained as a forester, argued that humanity should adopt a ‘land ethic’.
Christian Ecologists have responded by interpreting ‘dominion’ as ‘stewardship’. I see this as an incomplete re-interpretation of the Bible, because a steward takes instructions from a lord. A steward is ‘An official who controls the domestic affairs of a household, supervising the service of his master’s table, directing the domestics, and regulating household expenditure; a major-domo’ (OED). A steward would have a duty to conserve the environment only if the lord issued such a command. The etymology of steward is ‘most probably Old English stig a house or some part of a house’ (OED)
But what of Christianity and garden design? There is a Biblical injunction to grow food ‘…and thou shalt eat the herb of the field; In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.‘ But, as the magnificent words of the King James Bible testify, growing food was more of a duty a pleasure. Then, when Christianity became the official faith of the Roman Empire, the injunctions against idolatry (eg in the First and Second Commandments) came to the fore:
1. Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
2 Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me.

Rome’s public places, and Roman gardens, had been rich in statues of pagan Gods. After Christianity was declared the official religion of the Roman Empire, by Theodosius I on 27 February 380, these statues came to be regarded as idols and graven images. So they were removed or destroyed. This was a blow to the classical tradition of garden design, though not to the practice of gardening. Christian monks became expert gardeners and cloister garths are widely interpreted as examples of sacred geometry – as symbols of God’s perfection. The Vatican has great gardens but they do not have Christian symbols. The gardens of Lambeth Palace are sadly neglected. Some cloisters, like Salisbury, have had wholly inappropriate designs. Other cloister garths (eg Certose di Pavia) have parterre designs – which are not Christian symbols.
During the renaissance period, ‘graven images’ re-appeared in gardens. This was an aspect of what is called ‘renaissance paganism’. The Belvedere Court, in the heart of the Vatican, had the greatest collection of pagan sculpture in all Europe. I do not know of a contemporary justification for their presence but the argument seems to have been that since there is only one creator god, he must have created the pagan gods – and so they could be used to symbolise the Christian virtues. Venus is the prime example. Seen as a symbol of Love, she became an excellent reason for placing statues of nude girls in gardens. Protestants seem to have been less confident about her presence, as they were about other ornament and decoration, but even the Baroque gardens of the Counter-Reformation allowed for the siting of graven images in gardens, with two qualifications: they had to be pagan symbols and they could not, of course, be worshiped. It is odd that statues of pagan gods were allowed but statues of the Christian God, Jesus, Mary and the Apostles were not allowed. Should this policy be re-considered? Yes. Representations of the Holy Family are allowed in Christian art – so why should they be banned in Christian gardens? I look forward to the English churches helping to organise the sponsorship of Christian Gardens at the Chelsea Flower Show and as part of the Chelsea Fringe so that they can be kept as features of London’s garden heritage. Also, there is significant scope for improving the management of the gardens associated with cathedrals and churches. These projects would be demonstrations of new life in old institutions. There is a particular opportunity to use flowers of special importance to Christians, including red roses, white lilies and ‘flowery meads’.

[Note: the relationship between Christianity and gardens is discussed in British Gardens: History, philosophy and design London:Routledge 2013 p.148ff]

14 thoughts on “Christian symbols in garden design

  1. Christine

    Perhaps the most famous statue of Jesus is the Christ the Redeemer Statue in Rio which functions for the city much in the same way as the Statue of Liberty in New York.[ ]

    True, it is more usual for statuary to be incorporated into facades of buildings or within churches as shrines – although some gardens also have shrines and some have statues.

    In New Jersey there seems to be a tradition of Mary gardens. [ ]

    It would be good to see this and other categories of religious gardens included in Chelsea. It wouold be interesting to see the aesthetic evolve!

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      Many of the surving images of medieval gardens are of religious images, my favourite being the Mystical Marriage of St Catherine. There is too little information about medieval gardens to know if any real gardens had religious themes, but it seems unlikely.
      For the future, I would rather see gardens based on beliefs than on dogmatics. And there is a particular need for gardens which display the attitudes of faith communities to environmental issues.

  2. Christine

    Probably the reason why medieval gardens didn’t have religious themes was because there were no denominational distinctions at the time – except between the eastern and western rites. It might be useful to see if any differences in garden traditions arose after this the time of this division in belief?

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      There were separate monastic orders which, I think, had affects on design approaches. The Cistercians, for example, tended to avoid ornament and to have a genius for finding and developing rural sites. But I guess too little is known to identify links between the orders and approaches to garden design. Also, features like the herber shown in the St Catherine illustration are associated with castles and palaces rather than monasteries.
      The really strange aspect of late medieval/early renaissance gardens is that pagan statues were allowed and Christian statues were not allowed. What does this tell us?
      Grotesque sculpture (lions, centaurs etc) was permitted in cloisters – and disapproved of by the Cistercians. Heraldic beasts were used in palace etc gardens.

  3. Christine

    Someone might be able to correct me about this, but I am fairly confident that the injunction against other gods and graven images meant – God comes first and as with Moses and the Golden Calf – it is important to maintain your faith in God in good times and bad rather than creating other gods (graven images) to get you out of tricky situations!

    I am not sure that we are particularly prone to creating other gods in modern times, although during the French Revolution they probably came close!
    [ ]

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      I should have paid more attention in my Bible classes at school. My understanding is that the ban on graven images was both a call to monotheism and a call to worship the reality of God rather than images of gods. Whichever, the inception of Christianity certainly led to the mass destuction of images of pagan gods of the kind hitherto displayed in Roman palace gardens (and still to be seen in the Palatine Museum, for example).

  4. Christine

    It is a bit more difficult for us ‘moderns’ to fully appreciate that the statutes were literally being worshiped – and sometimes with dire consequences for other human beings – and were not merely pieces of representational art!

    Having recently finished reading a book on the Aztecs this is much more apparent.

    As young warriors had to capture another warrior in battle, who were then sacrificed at the temple – prior to them being able to marry. It was in effect an initiation rite. It seems that these gods were recognised as demons – rather than good spirits – by the indigenous informants
    (in anthropology).

    Of course, these understandings are not always entirely clear. But there is certainly a sense in Buddhism, where the religion of Bon, was associated with demons rather than good spirits. Perhaps a greater abstraction and cross cultural comparisons are needed so that these concepts can be revisited?

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      I have a friend who comments that although the conquistadores are perpetually castigated for destroying Aztec civilisation, it is his view that the Aztecs had such a bloody civilization that it was good for it to be destroyed. I know this is not a politically correct view – but he is a Russian emigree and knows that the best thing is to say what one thinks.

  5. Christine

    Perhaps the better thing for us to do in modern times would be for the international community to pressure the Aztecs to sign the Vienna Convention thus giving the slaves and potential sacrifice victims the protections afforded other prisoners of war!

    But of course this is more easily said than done, as many modern atrocities have demonstrated.

    Saying this strategy was successful in preventing the sacrifice of captured warriors of war in temples – it is possible to imagine that some other initiation rite of equivalent seriousness would have to take its place within the cultural adaptation in order for the rite of passage to marriage to continue. Given that Aztec warriors captured the other tribes warriors in one-on-one combat with weapons capable of decapitation, something as serious as a boxing match at the Olympic level might be the standard required?

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      If, as must be, we are going to allow extreme sports, in which I would include boxing, rugby, motorbike racing and fox hunting, then I don’t see why even more dangerous sports should not be allowed. Are they not human rights? And, if not, when did they stop becoming human rights?
      The first item on the list of human rights is the Right to Life. Does it mean that hungry humans can clear all the rain forests and kill all the elephants? Dominion over ‘all the earth’ implies that humans have a right to take these actions.
      There is also a big problem as to whether human rights are universal or relative.
      Much though I oppose the things which human rights legislation opposes, I worry that they are a European conception which will not stand the tests of time. They relate to the Three Cs: Christianity, Capitalism and Civilization (which transmute into the Republican Party’s Three Gs: God, Guns and Gays)

  6. Christine

    The reference should have been to the Geneva Convention on the Treatment of Prisoners of War rather than the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations!
    [ ]

    It seems that their is a slight difference between the aims of humanitarian conventions and the aims of human rights conventions – the Geneva Convention forms part of international humanitarian law rather than international human rights law, although it seems both are derived from the humanitarian movement.

    The humanitarian movement is said to be “a product of the influence of rationalism upon puritanism”.

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      That is a wonderful phrase about ‘the influence of rationalism upon puritanism’. It makes the humanitarian movement, which has become one of the foundations of international law, seem like a temporary historical quirk.
      Also, it makes me wonder what the environmental movement is a product of. Could it be ‘the influence of rationalism upon greed’? Or ‘the influence of romanticism upon rationalism’? Put another way, should we trace it to Malthus or to Ruskin – or to Darwin? I guess there are shelves of books on this, but I have not read them.

  7. Christine

    I am not sure whether this is the true beginnings of the movement, but it seems to be popularly located in the US with preservationists such as John Muir who “wanted land set aside for its own sake” and conservationists like Clifford Pinchot who “wanted to manage natural resources for human use”.

    In law it has its genesis in pollution legislation (concern with the human environment) and in resource sharing treaties (concerned with resource depletion) – that is with a conservationist stance. I am not sure of the first legislative attempt to protect nature for its own sake, perhaps it was the migratory bird treaty act of 1918 in the US implementing the convention between the UK and the US?

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      I think you are right about the inspirations to the conservation movement, which I would trace back a little further to Uvedale Price and to German foresters in the nineteenth century (sorry I can’t put names to them).


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