Altarpiece of the Dominicans by Martin Schongauer

Martin Schongauer

Altarpiece of the Dominicans, c.1480, Oil on pine, 116 x 116 cm each panel, Musée d'Unterlinden, Colmar, akg-images / Joseph Martin

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Blessed is the Fruit of thy Womb

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The Song of Solomon encourages us to imagine a woman who is a landscape and who is in a landscape, both at the same time. That doubleness lies behind a scene which became a popular one in late medieval art, found here on an altarpiece from Colmar, France.

That scene is the Annunciation, imagined as taking place in an outdoor paradise. ‘A garden locked is my sister, my bride; a garden locked, a fountain sealed’ says the lover of the Song (4:12), and the hortus conclusus (closed garden) typical of Annunciation scenes, with a sealed fountain among its emblematic symbols, takes especial inspiration from this verse (Daley 1986: 253–78). The walled garden, with its tower and oak door, creates a hidden world like the lovers’ closed circle of two. Like theirs, it is an enchanted realm of natural beauty. The ground is a quiet riot of botanical charm, minutely variegated like the orchard of Song 4:13–14: here not spices but herbs, clover, grasses, wild flowers.

But the walls and gates of the garden on this altarpiece also speak of the woman at the heart of the garden. Here is Mary, the mother of Jesus: the turrets and bolts signal her virginity just as locks and seals speak of the exclusive fidelity of the beloved in the Song. At the centre of this garden grows a lily, a symbol for purity with a distant echo of Susanna; but the visitor who surprises the woman alone here is of a different kind to the spying elders. It is the angel Gabriel: suddenly, he is in the garden, a hunter blowing his horn.

A medieval hymn (the sequence Imperatrix gloriosa) finds here a reply to the woman’s command. ‘Awake, O north wind, and come, O south wind! Blow upon my garden’, she calls, and the answering breath is Gabriel’s, blowing like the gentle south wind and breathing word of the blossom and fruit she will bear.

 

References

Blume, Clemens S.J. 1915. ‘Imperatrix gloriosa’, in Analecta hymnica medii aevi 54 (Leipzig, O.R. Reisland), pp. 351–53

Daley, Brian E. 1986. ‘The “Closed Garden” and the “Sealed Fountain”: Song of Songs 4:12 in the Late Medieval Iconography of Mary’, in Medieval Gardens, ed. by Elizabeth B. MacDougall (Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks), pp. 253–78

Wyss, Robert L. 1960. ‘Vier Hortus Conclusus-Darstellungen im Schweizerischen Landesmuseum’, Zeitschrift für Schweizerische Archäologie und Kunstgeschichte, 20: 113–24


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