Christian gardens: the Marian Garden

by frankbeswick

Christianity has inspired a variety of garden designs, one of which is the Marian Garden.

The capacity of religion to inspire art is well-known by all, and art includes gardens. Christianity's deep intellectual and spiritual resources express themselves in music, painting and horticulture. The Christian gardening tradition goes back to the time after Christianity was established and monasteries were founded. The Benedictine monks were great cultivators of the land and produced beauty and utility for the edification of the soul and the care of the body. Their tradition continues.

Picture courtesy of lapping

The Roots of the Christian Garden

"And God saw what he had made and indeed it was very good." [Genesis 1:31.]

This single line of Scripture expresses a key element in Jewish  and Christian thought, that the world is not a negative place to be escaped as we rush to heaven, or a mere illusion, but a place which God made as good, which is to be  celebrated, enjoyed and protected. Christianity adds to the shared Jewish heritage by believing that the world is the place where the incarnation,God's becoming human in Christ,  took place, which makes it special and sacred. 

Gardens play an important role  in this noble vision, and so do gardeners. While many ancient cultures valued warriors and war, despising manual labour as for the lower orders, Christianity was founded by a carpenter, so his followers regarded manual labour as sacred, and this extended to gardening. In fact, for mediaeval Christians gardening was considered a dignified activity, higher than the aristocratic pursuit of hunting, which was considered not sinful, but not particuarly expressive of Christian values. Gardening was an activity which was performed peacefully and produced nourishment and beauty, which made it an apt expression of the Christian spirit. Thus gardeners are seen as people who co-operate with God in creating a good world, as Tolkien would say, subcreators under and with God. This is the Christian vision for humanity, co-operators with the deity in the act of creation. Educating, governing [justly] healing, gardening and nurturing are all acts which express the Christian spirit to the full. 

This leads us to the principle that Christian gardens are for  beauty and utility. Look at the picture below and you see a cloister garden, which is designed as a place of peace and beauty surrounded by the cloisters [walkways]  around which monks or nuns walk while meditating, the garden being an aid to meditation. The aim of producing beauty and peace is achieved not only in a cloister garth, but also in a paradise garden, a plot intended to be beautiful, a memory of Eden and a foretaste of heaven. Catholic worship aims at beauty in liturgical rites, music and ecclesiastical art, as it wants the worshipping environment to be  a glimpse of the heaven which is to come. The garden is integral to this vision, for it is  a place to meditate in the beauty of creation, and also it provides the cut flowers that augment the chapel.

But see below a simpler garden by a damaged wall,which is in a Russian Orthodox monastery damaged by neglect under communism. While it lacks the sophistication of better blessed monastery gardens, Christianity simply asks that we do our best in the often harsh circumstances of our lives, which was what was done here. 

Christian gardens are also places of utility for people's benefit,  producing food and medical herbs to follow the commandment that we love our neighbour. While the herbs are often now replaced by modern medicine, the gardens can still be sites of spiritual and emotional healing where minds and souls are mended in the peace and beauty of the garden.      


Cloister Garden

A cloister garden
A cloister garden

Paradise Garden

A small paradise garden
A small paradise garden

Flowers Behove Mary

An almost forgotten type of garden

"Bring flowers of the rarest, bring blossoms the fairest

From garden and woodland and hillside and vale" 

So goes the popular Catholic hymn to Mary often asociated with the Marian pilgrimage site of Lourdes. This link between Mary and flowers lies deep  in the popular religious consciousness, for the delicate beauty of these flower stands for her femininity, a link that was expressed in the Marian garden. 

There are now in England  few Marian gardens, sad that this is so in a land where they once thrived, but the mass vandalism of the English Reformation, which saw the now much lamented destruction of ninety five per cent of England's religious art, also occasioned the destruction of religious gardens as the monasteries fell to Henry's tyranny. As  Protestantism paid little heed to the Mother of God, most Marian gardens fell into abandonment and ruin and were replaced. Much of what we know about mediaeval Marian gardens comes from European religious art, which depicts Mary with a garden background. 

The Marian garden will contain flowers dedicated to Mary, also known as Our Lady,of which there is a wide range. The lily is often associated with Mary, for its white represents puriity, and below you can see the Madonna lily, a plant specifically linked to her. But there is also the rose, which is replete with symbolism. Its beauty is linked to her because she represents the sacred feminine, to which the beauty of flowers gives tribute.Yet the thorns stand for the suffering that she underwent when she witnessed Jesus being crucified, for she had her own cross to bear. In fact she is often lined with plants that have sword-shaped leaves, as lilies do, to represent Simeon's prophecy that sword of sorrow would pierce her heart.[Luke chapter 2.]

Various colours are associated with Mary, including gold and blue, a colour associated with her robe as depicted in religious art. But both colours are in art linked to the incarnation, and are represented by flowers of these shades. One is solidago, golden rod, whose proliferation of small, delicate  and golden blossoms testified to her role as the queen of heaven, whom gold behoves. Before the Reformation the gardener/sacristan at Melrose Abbey in Southern Scotland grew the rare blue rosemary in honour of Mary and to adorn the church at her feast days.  Snowdrops also were considered symbolic of  Mary, for they were white for purity and they mark the coming of spring,just as the message from the angel Gabriel to her at the annunication  was the moment at which her devoted yes to God allowed the incarnation to take place.These plants are linked to Candlemas, the old English name for the feast of the purification of Mary after child birth, which takes place on February the Second, an ancient pagan Spring time festival.  

Yet the suffering that Mary underwent in her life is sometimes represented by bitter plants.  One of these is Artemisia absinthum, wormwood, which reminds us of the pain that she underwent when Jesus was rejected, and also the fact that she was persecuted by is enemies after death to the extent that she had to go to Ephesus, so Christian tradition tells us. 

Madonna lily

The Madonna Lily
The Madonna Lily



Golden rod

Golden rod
Golden rod

A Place of Meditation

Religious gardens are meant to be places where humans walk with God, just as the Bible says that they did in Eden. In fact, Christianity allows people to pray either walking, sitting or standing, even lying down if desired. Many Christians therefore walk as they pray, which is why monasteries have cloisters, covered walkways or corridors around a cloister garth or courtyard. A Marian garden will therefore have a system of paths between the flower beds. They will be easy to walk on, as difficult paths make prayer harder and will deter the weak and vulnerable. There is no requirement for all the paths to be shaded, but some shelter is useful, as people want to use the garden in less than clement weather. There will be places for people to sit and meditate, some covered and others not, for sitting with God is as good as walking with Him.

Whether there will be lawns is undecided, as we do not associate the lawn with Mary, we never did, though a camomile lawn is a possbility, as Roman Camomile, [Anthemis nobilis] is a flower long associated with her. Lawns will be quiet, well tended spaces where visitors can sit and think. In truth, excessive tending of the lawn to keep it as short as possible is probably counter--productive as the noise of the mowers will disturb meditators. There is an undue devotion to very short lawns, but the Mediaevals were less obsessed with this and often allowed grass to grow longer than is now fashionable, and even planted bulbs in their "launds" sometimes, so that flowers grow through the grass. Stone or gravel-covered places are acceptable, as are container gardens.  

Talking of lawns, a Marian garden must be ecologically sustainable, and these days it is becoming less likely that lawns can be maintained, even in South-East England due to the water shortages due to global warming. So lawns maybe out. 

The garden will contain statuary and as Catholics use visual arts, a statue of Mary should take pride of place, but there should be a cross to stand for Christ, as he is the Son of God,as you see below. Areas may be themed for times in Mary's life, with the first being the annunciation, and a later one being for the crucifixion, which will be associated with wormwood and its bitterness. Some Marian gardens have a space empty of statuary to stand for the empty tomb that Christian tradition tells us was found when the apostles opened her tomb, just after her burial. This showed them that Mary had been assumed into heaven, and this belief is what Catholics call the Assumption. As the empty tomb paralled what happened to Jesus, it seems to me that at the back of this belief is the  idea that Mary was privileged to share her son's resurrection ahead of other believers. 

Marian gardens are slowly being revived by devoted enthusiasts. They constitute a neglected gardening tradition, but they have a future, for they are places of quietness, peace and beauty dedicated to the  sacred feminine. 



Statue of Mary in a garden
Statue of Mary in a garden
Updated: 05/23/2018, frankbeswick
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frankbeswick on 02/21/2020

Good question,Derdriu. It is conventional to have plants traditionally associated with Mary, but you have raised the very significant issue of whether there could be plants from continents other than Europe that could be grown in a Marian garden. As far as I know, you are the first person to ask this question. I have no immediate answer.

I cannot say that any metal, stone or wood has a specific Marian association, but you have just given me an idea, for why could not a Marian garden and a healing garden be combined. I have heard of peace gardens, so why could we not design a peace garden centred on Mary, Queen of Peace? Unfortunately, I lack the design talent to do this job.

Mary could be at the heart of garden designed for healing hurt minds.

Thank you for the ideas that you have given me.

DerdriuMarriner on 02/21/2020

frankbeswick, Thank you for the photos, practicalities and products.
This adds to my collection on spiritual space since the authors have name and title recognition for me but I don't have them.
Does a Marian garden need to have only the plants that traditionally are associated with her, such as the lily and the rose, or may it be considered Marian if it has those along with other bitter or blue, gold and white-flowering or sword-leafed plants?
Is there a metal, stone or wood that particularly would evoke and honor her in terms of Crosses, divisions from other spaces or seats?

frankbeswick on 01/17/2018

The first Benedictine worked hard to repair the soils of Europe damaged by roman exploitation, wich took more from the ground than it gave. I learned this from Sacred Gardens by Palmer and Manning [see above.]

frankbeswick on 01/16/2018

Much work was needed, especially at the beginnng of the work.

blackspanielgallery on 01/16/2018

I can see the peace, sufficient for meditation, but I also see the work needed to achieve this. Surly monks toiled before they could enjoy their gardens.

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