Often dismissed as ‘mere
decoration’, carvings of flowers and foliage in Medieval Churches and Cathedrals have escaped critical attention. In recent years, however, there
has been a growing realisation that these carvings represent a sophisticated
iconography that evolved over a period of some four centuries to symbolise
varied and subtle themes in the religious understanding of the day.
In Romanesque (for England, equivalent to Norman) times, foliage was used to express
the idea of paradise and the New Life made possible by Christianity. The Gothic
church refined these ideas so that each species could symbolise a whole theme
of thought. Such ideas seem to find their earliest expression at Chartres. They were
developed very fully at Reims, completed in
the early 14th Century. Confidence in such expression could have come from
earlier inspired authorities such as Albertus Magnus and Hildegard v. Bingen.
These were Catholic times and
the Virgin Mary had attained new peaks of veneration. All flowers were
dedicated to Mary, some more so than others. The stories about Mary, her
Immaculate Conception, Christ’s conception, His birth and the early Flight into
many of them to be found in the Apocryphal gospels, provided a rich source for
metaphors that could be translated into pictures. The carvers gave of their
best to produce some very intricate and lovely work. They were undoubtedly
guided by a spiritual plan that probably emanated from a subcommittee of the
Chapter and architect, or their equivalents in those days. Confidence in such expression could have come
from earlier inspired authorities such as Albertus Magnus and Hildegard v.
Charlesfort Press has produced
three books on this fascinating subject.
The first, ‘God’s Beasts’, examines the carvings of animals that can be found
in churches and Cathedrals. Regrettably,
this book is now out of print.
The second book, ‘The Flowers of Exeter’, presents the iconography visible
in the many floral carvings contained in the roof-bosses and corbels of Exeter
Cathedral. This book is now also out of print.
Completing the trilogy, ‘God’s Flowers’, published in 2012 as a
large-format paperback book, gives a comprehensive insight into some sixty of
the floral species that are represented in medieval ecclesiastical carvings
across Europe, with carefully-researched
explanations of their iconographic significance in the context of the religious
understanding of the times.