Contemplation of the Enclosed Gardens of Mechelen
The Visible and Invisible That Makes Us Complete
Contemplation of the Enclosed Gardens of Mechelen
Author: Monika Drlikova
June 2020, my first museum visit after the lockdown, at Museum Hof van Busleyden, Mechelen, Belgium.
On the top floor I am sitting in front of the absolute highlight of each of my visits to this museum: the sixteenth-century Enclosed Gardens, astonishing artefacts comprising a rich variety of materials and objects, loaned to the city of Mechelen (once the capital of the Burgundian Netherlands) by the sisters of the Hospital of Our Lady in Mechelen. They represent the enclosed garden described in the Biblical Song of Songs, which can be interpreted as an allegory of mystical love, but also as a reference to the Virgin Mary’s purity. As such, the gardens functioned as a spiritual facet for the sisters and formed an integral part of their everyday religious exercises.
Fig. 1: The central part of Enclosed Garden with Sts Elizabeth, Ursula and Catherine, Mechelen c. 1524-1530, 134,5 x 194 x 25 cm, Museum Hof van Busleyden – Collection Sisters of the Hospital of Our Lady, inv. GHZ BH002.
Today, the Enclosed Gardens can be admired in an intimate museum space, enshrined in a glass chamber, vividly lit by a spotlight, allowing visitors to appreciate their magnificence without any distractions. And there I was, between genuine admiration and my own curious exploration of objects in the gardens. Suddenly, a ponderous question materialized that often occurs to me when I am facing medieval religious objects. How much does our perception of these ravishing objects differ from the way the sisters perceived them in the sixteenth century? How much do we miss, and how can our experience enrich these artefacts?
Just like many other religious artefacts created for spiritual piety and intimate devotion, the enclosed gardens were not meant just to be looked at. The sisters tended to them daily, maintaining direct and in-person engagement. The creative processes and activities in these gardens were a religious responsibility in spiritual horticulture. Just as gardeners care for their gardens by hoeing flower beds or weeding vegetable fields, the sisters sewed various relics wrapped with silk threads into the gardens and they might have embroidered some of the beautiful fauna and flora within or at least restored some of the objects when needed.
The physical interaction with the gardens led to spiritual experience and contemplation, through which the sisters might have sensed the holy presence. The gardens functioned as a medium, a window for communication with the celestial. Among other things, such contemplation was meant to reaffirm or empower devotees, the sisters in this case, in morally correct behaviour, and functioned as an important aspect of their mental health.
Fig. 2: Enclosed Garden with St Augustine, the Virgin and Child with St Anne and St Elisabeth, Mechelen, c. 1510-1530, 147,5 x 208,3 x 37,8 cm, Museum Hof van Busleyden – Collection Sisters of the Hospital of Our Lady, inv. GHZ BH006.
On the painted wings of the Enclosed Garden with Saint Elizabeth of Hungary, Saint Ursula, and Saint Catherine of Alexandria (1513–24), you can see a sister depicted with her eyes closed (Fig. 4). Moreover, her ocular orbits are malformed, and her hands are unnaturally large, almost as large as her head. The hands, probably pointing at the importance of a tactile piety of this sister, and the closed eyes, a pictorial convention for blindness, might demonstrate that the sister might have been visually impaired, or perhaps even blind.
Therefore, she could experience the garden not with sight, but through the other senses. Touch could have been implied by the three-dimensional character of the garden itself, as well as by the sculptures, relics and other tactile objects set in the garden. Smell and taste sensations could have been invoked by the embroidered fruit and flowers that might even have been scented with floral aromas. Listening to a song or speech might have been imagined upon touching the open lips of St. Margaret’s statuette. In this way, the sister experienced the holy presence just in the way described above.
The floral aromas in the garden might not have been meant only to invoke the sense of smell and taste. In fifteenth- and sixteenth-century medieval treatises, floral aromas and fragrances were assumed to have healing properties. Together with other objects in the garden, mainly saintly relics (three dozens of them), which were believed to be able to miraculously heal the body by being touched, another assumption arises. The garden might have been intended to heal not only the soul, but also the body. And that could have been the case with the other gardens situated in the accessible areas of the hospital as well.
Fig. 3: Enclosed Garden with a Calvary and the Hunt of the Unicorn, detail, Mechelen, c. 1510-1530, 125,8 x 159,2 x 33,6 cm, Museum Hof van Busleyden – Collection Sisters of the Hospital of Our Lady, inv. GHZ BH001.
Experiencing art during lockdown
What is the significance of all of this for a twenty-first-century beholder? Although some religious practices have remained alive to this day, many artworks originally made for religious spaces and devotion can only be seen in museums today, often behind glass, just as in the case of the enclosed gardens.
In a way, our experience is always remote. And even if I could see these magnificent treasures in their original setting, my experience would not have been the same as that of a sixteenth-century person. But this does not mean that they are just dead objects to us. There might be another way of keeping these artifacts alive –relate to them, and, perhaps, contemplate them from our perspective and contemporary situation.
My engagement with the gardens behind glass reminded me of something that we are experiencing during these very days. Over the past several months, our lives have changed dramatically. Almost overnight, we found ourselves living in a different world. What we took for granted has become a luxury, including the human interaction we had grown accustomed to. Streets have emptied, I have started going to sleep without hearing drunken lullabies outside my window, just to be awakened by the sirens echoing in the city. Much less often are we seeing hugs, cheeks being kissed, handshakes.
As time goes by, some of us come to realize that we spend most of the day without saying a single word. The elderly have lost the little contact with their relatives and peers they tend to have and couples have been divided by borders, able only to see each other on their laptop screens. We distance ourselves from one another. We have become fragile and placed behind glass, just as these gardens, treasured today in glass chambers. In this mode of existence, we realize that something is missing – the realness, the completeness. The atmosphere often feels filled with hopelessness and misery. And in such dire moments, we have come to realize how much a reassuring hand on our shoulder can mean.
Fig. 4: Enclosed Garden with Saint Elizabeth of Hungary, Saint Ursula, and Saint Catherine of Alexandria (1513–24), detail, Mechelen c. 1524-1530, 134,5 x 194 x 25 cm, Museum Hof van Busleyden – Collection Sisters of the Hospital of Our Lady, inv. GHZ BH002.
On the healing aspect of art
Just like the multisensory contemplation of the gardens helped the sisters to sense the invisible celestial power, our limited existence has made us realize that there is something invisible between us that makes us complete. Perhaps if the sixteenth-century sisters of the hospital had seen the gardens in the museum today, their experience of them might have been similar to our experience of the pandemic-stricken world.
Although taken out of their original context, in the museum, the gardens were provided with optimal conditions and prevented from deterioration, so that future generations can continue to be enlightened and enchanted by them. The difference between us and the gardens is that, unlike the gardens, which will continue their existence behind glass, hopefully, our interaction with the world will come back to “normal”, at least as regards the interaction between one another. But for now, instead of the reassuring hand of a friend on our shoulder, or the hug of a parent – both of which are too far away, we can only accept the screen of our mobile devices as our only means for communication.
Thanks to my contemplative interaction with the Enclosed Gardens, some part of my mental health has been restored. Thus the intrinsic function of these objects is alive and available to us even today. Just at the moment the gardens were taken out of their religious context, and put in the museum space, they were also “promoted to” and recognized as art. And what is the healing aspect of art, if not this?
In the past few months, we have come to realize how important art is in our everyday life. With the closure of museums, the digital space has become flooded with art content. Once again, we have been reminded that art is not an elitist matter, but rather something to be seen and experienced every day, just as the Enclosed Gardens for the Hospital Sisters five centuries ago.
P.S., November 2020: Although you may not be able to visit our Enclosed Gardens these days, you can surely pursue an activity associated with art for your mental wellbeing. Perhaps you might try to create something with your children, for your grandchildren, or just for yourself.
About the author
Monika Drlikova studies Research Master’s programme Art History of the Low Countries at Utrecht University. Currently, she is doing her internship at Museum Hof van Busleyden and working on her MA thesis on Wenceslaus Hollar and his scientific illustrations.
- For the most recent literature see Enclosed Gardens of Mechelen including up-to-date bibliography see Hannah Iterbeke and Lieve Watteeuw (eds.), Enclosed Gardens of Mechelen. Late Medieval Paradise Gardens Revealed (Amsterdam, 2018).
- For the Gardens as a form of spiritual horticulture see Hannah Iterbeke, Cultivating Devotion: The Sixteenth-Century Enclosed Gardens of the Low Countries, IKON, Journal of Iconographic Studies 10 (2017), pp. 237-250. - Barbara Baert, Hannah Iterbeke and Lieve Watteeuw, Late Medieval Enclosed Gardens of the Low Countries. Mixed Media, Remnant Art, Récyclage and Gender in the Low Countries (16th century onwards), in The Agency of Things in Medieval and Early Modern Art: Materials, Power and Manipulation, eds. Grazyna Jurkowlaniec, Ika Matyjaskiewicz and Zuzana Sarnecka (New York, 2018), pp. 33-48.
- For the sensory experience of Enclosed Garden with Saint Elizabeth of Hungary, Saint Ursula, and Saint Catherine of Alexandria, see Andrea Pearson, Sensory Piety as Social Intervention in a Mechelen Besloten Hofje, Journal of Historians of Netherlandish Art 9, no. 2 (Summer 2017). DOI: 10.5092/JHNA.2017.9.2.1.
- For the sensory experience of the gardens in general, see Kathryn M. Rudy, Virtual Pilgrimages in the Convent. Imagining Jerusalem in the Late Middle Ages (Turnhout, 2011). - Idem, Postcards on Parchment: The Social Lives of Medieval Books (New Haven & London, 2015). And Barbara Baert, Hannah Iterbeke and Lieve Watteeuw, Late Medieval Enclosed Gardens of the Low Countries. Mixed Media, Remnant Art, Récyclage and Gender in the Low Countries (16th century onwards), in The Agency of Things in Medieval and Early Modern Art: Materials, Power and Manipulation, eds. Grazyna Jurkowlaniec, Ika Matyjaskiewicz and Zuzana Sarnecka (New York, 2018), pp. 33-48.
- Other literature:
- Milena Bartlová, Skutečná přítomnost. Středověký obraz mezi ikonou a virtuální realitou/ The Real Presence: Medieval Image Between Icon and Virtual Reality, (Praha, 2012).
- David Freedberg, The Power of Images: Studies in the History and Theory of Response, (Chicago, 1991).