One of the pleasures of looking at illuminated manuscripts is to turn your attention to the margins. Although the text and its accompanying illustrations are the main attraction, the decorative flourishes in the margins are often even more delightful.
The current manuscript show at the Walters Art Gallery, which deals with the role played by plants and flowers in illuminated manuscripts, is like a compact garden in which even the margins have been intensively cultivated.
Sometimes these floral decorations are merely pleasing visual accents, but as often they have symbolic significance. In fact, there is what might be termed a whole language of flowers. Today we've mostly forgotten the attributes adhering to flowers, so this small exhibit is a nice reminder of the reasons behind our custom of sending a dozen roses.
If meaning-laden flowers are planted in so many borders of the exhibited pages, there are also many instances where plants take center stage.
In an illustration of the "Temptation of Adam and Eve" from a French Book of Hours ca. 1300-1310 a stiffly stylized Adam and Eve stand to either side of the Tree of Knowledge. This is the original tree, if you will, and its symbolic importance within the Garden of Eden does not lend itself (at least to the 14th century artist's mind) to a realistic depiction that a botanist would recognize. That the scene has been framed within a Gothic architectural setting is a reminder of how the artist made an image that both spoke to his own time and was also timeless.
Another illuminated manuscript where plants are at the center of things is an "Annunciation with a lily-pot" from a French Book of Hours ca. 1420-1430. A potted Madonna lily sits right smack between Mary and an angel, ensuring that nobody will miss its commentary on her purity. This manuscript also has decorations in its borders that are inspired by the rough-edged acanthus leaf.
For more flowers related to the Virgin Mary, just consider "a rosary of flowers" in a prayer book from Flanders ca. 1510. Our own beaded rosaries are based upon this stringing together of flowers such as daisies representing her innocence and violets her humility.
On a more secular front, plants were used as instantly recognizable reminders of seasonal cycles. Consider a French Book of Hours ca. 1540 in which a liturgical calendar has different natural activities illustrated for each month. The two images in "Mowing in July, Reaping in August" depict several field workers so absorbed in their duties that they almost seem to be in meditative states.
Medieval life wasn't all work and no play, though. Just have a look at "Courting in April" from a French Book of Hours ca. 1485. It depicts a woman seated in a garden making a wreath of variously hued flowers. Next to her a timid young man hands over a bouquet of blue flowers. All these centuries later and we still don't know if she will accept his flowers and invitation for a date.
"Plants and Flowers in Illuminated Manuscripts" may be seen at the Walters Art Gallery, at 600 N. Charles St., through Oct. 6. Call 547-9000.