The Landscape Guide



Monastery gardens

The history of the beginning of Christian monasteries and their gardens is somewhat obscure. We only know that, in the East, men were attracted by the hermit’s life, and even after they had taken to living in the cloister as a community, they preferred separate isolated cells. These monks lived in the early days (as so often later) on alms that came from outside; and therefore we cannot assume that they cultivated gardens in any regular way. For monks, like other people, only began to busy themselves in the garden when they were driven by the necessity of working for their own livelihood.

The development in the West during the middle ages seems to have been very different, even from the start. We find quite early that like-minded brethren form a community, where they live together with no personal property and the same religious practices. Saint Augustine assembled his company about him in this spirit. He tells the tale of the foundation at Hippo: “I assembled, in a garden that Valerius had given me, certain brethren of like intentions with my own, who possessed nothing, even as I possessed nothing, and who followed after me.” Just as in another age Plato, Epicurus, and Theophrastus took their pupils into their gardens; and just as, still earlier, the Buddhist saints withdrew into the garden given to them by their Indian co-religionists, so these Christian brothers with their great teacher annexed a garden - perhaps in slightly conscious imitation of their ancient predecessors. Later than this Augustine built his church (with its cloister site corresponding to museum, exedra, and portico in the old philosopher’s garden); and from the account given it is obvious that in this particular instance the habit of meeting and living together in a garden preceded the foundation of church and monastery. The buildings of a medieval monastery were grouped round a peristyle quite as invariably in the West, where the monks had the strict discipline of a life in common, as in the East, where they were allowed more personal freedom; for even the isolated cells in an Oriental cloister were mostly grouped round a central court.

Medieval Christian monasteries have so many forms, ranging from the small town house to the magnificent villa urbana, and yet, are so persistently of one original type, that it is hard to point to any immediate predecessor. A place of this kind certainly satisfied the needs that Southern people would feel; it gave the monks two things which they required before all others—a common centre and complete seclusion. No doubt cloisters have often been made from forsaken villas, rebuilt and utilised, and we also hear of estates and great houses being presented by rich fellow-Christians. The “hortus" that Valerius gave to Augustine will have had some building attached, for the word “hortus" nearly always means villa.

On the other hand, we have already found many examples of the portico in connection with gardens. Seeing that there was generally a portico, always planted as a garden, adjoining the ancient basilicas, one is reminded of the fact that the portico of the monks, the cloister, was always close to the Christian basilica, the church. But most of all do the ancient cloisters of the Forum, and the house and temple of the Vestal Virgins, show a likeness to the Christian places, in the grouping of their parts; and so it may be that the problem of every Order, desiring to live together, and apart from the rest of mankind, has never found a better solution, either in antiquity or in the Middle Ages, than this of the cloistered life, although the actual manner of life of the famous priestesses and that of the poor monks seem poles apart.

The front court of the medieval Christian basilica is adapted from the antique portico, which was sometimes called Paradise, sometimes Atrium. It appears in very different forms, either covered in—even with an upper story—or an open pillared court. Here we may see a change of meaning analogous to that which we noticed before in the Greek word “ xystos.” We saw how clearly it is established that the name Paradise was given to the Roman portico-garden in Byzantine times, after the great hunting-grounds of Persia; and in precisely the same fashion was the same name Paradise applied to the open pillared court of a Christian basilica, where sinners had to wait before they gained admittance "in ecclesiam" Later on, the covered-in front court, which fulfilled the same purpose, and also was a sanctuary, received this name of Paradise. The so-called “ Expulsion of Adam" at Halberstadt seems to be connected with this last meaning given to the word: it was a popular fête, representing the expulsion of the first man from the Garden of Eden, and it took place in the paradise that stood on the west front of the church. The Latin name “atrium” was applied to the open court. The tradition which the Bollandist Fathers believed in may have arisen from the contiguity of these two places. They held that the Greeks were the first to plant trees in the atrium.

These medieval open courts were either paved all over (like the atrium with pineapple fountain in the old basilica of St. Peter’s at Rome), or—in the earlier period this was more usual— they were planted over. In the church of St. Felix, which was built by Paulinus of Nola in the year 900, an inscription is put over the door that leads into the “ pomarium,” and bears the words, “ Exitus in Paradisum.” And even to-day it is possible to see a paradise with plants, as for example before the west front of St. Maria Laach in the Eifel (Fig. 122).

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Unfortunately we do not know what the paradise looked like which was built “ in Roman fashion” after the rebuilding of the Benedectine monastery at Monte Cassino in 1070 ; we only know that its whole south side was occupied by a great well. There always had to be a well, and it was needed partly for religious purposes. The pineapple fountain in the open atrium at St. Peter’s was probably one of the oldest: but there may have been the same sort of thing even in the ancient world, and certainly this one has served as a model for many others, especially in the East. The idea spread in the West also, and the pineapple appears in the front court of the minster at Aix. The spaces between the crossways that marked the centre of the cloister were planted like the paradises of an earlier time, as at S. Paolo fuori in Rome (Fig. 123).
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In the eighth century Pope Hadrian had this place “most beautifully restored" ; by that time, as a fact, it was a complete ruin, and cattle and horses browsed contentedly on the vegetables. These courts were not often planted as kitchen-gardens, perhaps only when there was no larger place to turn to: more often they were used as churchyards, generally full of trees and flower-beds, with a well — a place where the brothers could meditate.

We often hear of their beauty at a later period. William Rufus once in his headstrong fashion made his way into the abbey at Romsey, where Matilda (Henry's future wife) was staying for a time, and the abbess, afraid the child might come to some harm, dressed her in a nun’s habit. The king stepped out into the cloister, as though he “only wanted to admire the roses and the other flowering plants,” and let the child go by unmolested among the nuns. Still earlier, in the tenth century, a pious singer describes a cloister at the monastery at Reichenau: “Before St. Mary’s house on the far side of the threshold is the garden, well-nursed, well-watered, and lovely. About it there are walls, boughs swinging every way; it glows under the light, like an earthly Paradise."

From an early date the garden was not limited to the chief court. St Benedict, the founder of the Benedictine monastic order, more than any man, inspired the cloister life of the sixth century in Western Europe. He at once ordered that “ all the necessaries “ for the support of monks should be supplied within the walls, and among these “necessaries” water and gardens stood in the first rank: of course these gardens were for herbs and vegetables. We can only guess how far the establishments founded by St. Benedict himself, and especially the mother-cloister, were able to comply with his demands. The mention of a tower, and a portico, where St. Benedict lived with his pupils, makes us think of pictures of a Roman villa; but in any case the Benedictines, whose rule enjoined work in the garden, were the men who handed down the practice of horticulture right through the Middle Ages.

Those Orders which were not influenced by the Benedictine Rule, and forbade the monks to do farm work, still seem to have thought a garden indispensable. The Spaniard Isidorus in his Rule makes a special point of having a garden within the cloister, attached to the wall and entered by the back door, so that the monks should be able to work there and not have occasion to go outside. There was a certain tradition in the old Roman provinces about the cultivation of the choicer kinds of fruit, and it is hard to say how long it survived the storms of the Middle Ages, whether the monks are to be connected with this tradition, or if they started afresh on their own account, as is doubtless what did actually happen in the case of the German nations farther east. It is well worth noting that in Norway even to this day none but the finest and choicest fruit-trees are found on the site of an old monastery.