A garden in a modern city can offer respite, but few transport the visitor so completely as the medieval garden that opened recently in the busy heart of Paris's Latin Quarter. Sure, you can hear the traffic on the Boulevard Saint Germain. But the physical noise scarcely intrudes on the mental and spiritual space that the garden creates, drawing on inspiration half a millennium old.
Attached to the Cluny museum of medieval artifacts, the small park is not a re-creation of an ancient garden. Instead, laying out a mosaic of the sorts of flowers, plants, and trees that landscape artists used in the 15th century, it explores the different roles that gardens played in those days. Which were not all that different from gardens today, says curator Elisabeth Antoine. "On the one hand. they were after pleasure, through colors and smells and sounds. And then there was the practical aspect, with kitchen gardens and medicinal herbs."
Those who strolled medieval gardens had a far more highly developed sense of symbolism than we do today, says Ms. Antoine. From a tiny violet growing in the shade, for instance, our ancestors drew all kinds of lessons about discretion and humility. And the rose may still be the pride of most gardens, but for medieval gardeners the queen of flowers was also a symbol of the Virgin Mary. These references, sly winks if you like, between a gardener and those enjoying his art, are all over the "celestial garden."
A few steps away, on the other side of a rose and honeysuckle trellis, in the "garden of love," carnations symbolize betrothal. The scent of wild thyme and camomile is more sensual, and the enclosed space recalls lovers' meetings in courtly literature.
Throughout the garden, Antoine chose flowers, plants, and shrubs from medieval sources, primarily the fabulous "millefleur" (thousand flower) tapestries that adorn her museum's walls. Like a tapestry itself, the "meadow" section is a bedspread of wildflowers - bluebells, cowslips, primroses in spring, foxgloves in the summer, ox-eye daisies in the fall.
Antoine consulted more prosaic sources, such as ancient recipe books and medical handbooks, when choosing what to plant in the kitchen garden and the medicinal herb corner. There's nothing in the kitchen garden that a modern European gardner would not recognize - neat rows of cabbages, leeks, onions, and lettuces set off by the odd gooseberry and blackcurrant bush (the museum's two gardeners get to eat the vegetables they tend).
But the herbal garden - nine beds in different tones of green - is another story. Sage is common enough (cultivated in every medieval garden, its Latin name, salvia, means "the plant that heals"), but the tiny, bitter smelling dark-green leaves of rue are rarely found these days. In medieval times, it was thought to repel snakes. There is a bed of delicate, pale-green hyssop, which was thought to aid digestion and which was used to purify lepers and sinners.
Medieval medicine did not separate treatment for the body from that for the soul, and plants could have spiritual virtues as well as physical ones. One 12th-century German nun wrote a book of recipes for moods, including a recipe for joy.
The herbs recall days when people made more use of what they grew. One recent afternoon, elementary schoolteacher Christine Boumrar was bending over the hyssop, rubbing leaves between her fingers and sniffing, and remembering her grandmother. "She used to make flower salads, and crystallized violets in sugar, and acacia-flower doughnuts," Ms. Boumrar says wistfully. "I want to rediscover that sort of thing."
"Visitors tend to touch the plants and smell them," says Antoine. "This is a public garden, we don't want local people to feel excluded from it, and the garden also serves as an ambassador for the museum, catching people's eye."
That it has. The Cluny museum, whose entrance is tucked away on a little-known square, has seen its visitor numbers jump 30 percent since the garden opened.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society