Topography of Paradise

monastic gardenThe Quest for Earthly Paradise

The Paradise remains for the modern man a hidden source of both melancholy and soaring, a mystic realm where the past becomes transparent and lets the future of mankind to be seen. The historian of religion Mircea Eliade has already shown that this mythical geography still works as progress vector of history and determined, for example, the colonization of the two Americas. Immigrants really “believed that the time had come to renew the Christian world, and the true renewal was the return to the Earthly Paradise or, at the very least, the beginning again of sacred history, the reiteration of the prodigious events spoken of in the Bible”[1].

In this case, the colonization of the new land could not have taken place without the nostalgia for the divine childhood of humanity, without the trust in a realm that iterates as an Earthly Paradise the biblical age known as “In the beginning”. The following essay tries to convince the reader that this archetype has a dual nature; it exists both in the imagination and in the world at large, as a theological construct and as a foundation of humanity as well.

Adam and Eve Wander into a Marvel Garden

In the Middle Ages, the garden of delights (hortus voluptatis) becomes the terrestrial projection of the lost Paradise, a physical place that conceal the entire nostalgia for the childhood spent in the sky. Figured as an open-access harvest garden, with a small spring running through smelly trees and exotic flowers, this garden of delight was seen as a miniature of the lost Paradise. It became a locus periucundus (very agreeable place) where the man lived shoulder by shoulder with his divine father. Beyond its physical existence, this hortus voluptatis had an important presence in the European imagery, illustrating there as a literary topos the remembrance of humanity celestial origins. Unfortunately, the literary career of this theological construct remained insufficiently explored, and no one has seen under its romantic veil a paradigm shift of philosophy. In my opinion, the garden of sensorial pleasures tells us first and foremost that the Absolute can be seen and smelled right here on earth, an Aristotelian exaltation making from nature a next door of Paradise. Already, the Spinoza’s heresy of deus sive natura fels a bit up in the air.

The literary and philosophical fruits of this celestial garden have become simultaneously, or rather in unison, the self-centered consciousness of humanity, its convention of transcendence. Or, to put it in a poetic way, the shadow of paradise has become the shadow of man, an urge to read continuously the practical guide of the most perfect “kinder-garten” of humanity: the Paradise. Besides, the education of nineteenth century can be an example of how the humanity preserved the celestial construct as an illustration for its luminous childhood. When Edward Wiebe had to prepare his very popular handbook for kindergartners, he called it The Paradise of Childhood (1869), as a mystical reference to the golden age of primordial knowledge.

Garden of Persian Roses

In the Middle Ages, the rich heritage of Byzantine culture significantly affected not only the thought but also the daily life of Western man, such us the gardening, where a strange influence now enter. In this context, we can see how the utilitarianism of the Greek classical garden (pervolí) is abruptly abandoned, the monastic garden of vegetables, fruits and cure plants being replaced by the floral garden, with Persian roses and ornamental plants. The new agro hortulano was designed to delight the noble senses visus et odoratus (sight and smell), as St. Albert the Great explains in his treatise De vegetabilibus (c. 1250): “There are not many uses given by crops for fruits, they only offer pleasure, not at all elevated, which rather reduces them to nothing. The other is the land that gives us delight for two of the most important senses, the sight and the smell (Sunt autem quedam utilitatis non magnae aut fructus loca, sed ob delectationem parata, quae potius cultus carent, et ideo ad nulum dictorum agrorum reducuntur. Haec autem sunt, quia ad delectationem duorum maxime sensuum praeparantur, hoc est visus et odoratus)”[2].

Between Feeling and Thinking

In medieval thought, the transition from the nutritional garden (hortus nutritiva) to the admiration for a sensitive garden (hortus sensitiva) illustrates the distancing of thought from the Platonism. It is the moment when the art of gardening abandons the strictly theoretical utility of the influential Herbarium, an apocrypha (IVth Century) of an author, (Pseudo) Apuleius, admired as Plato’s disciple. Do not forget, from the senses, especially from visus (sight), Aristotle had made in the first paragraphs of Metaphysics an instrument of memory and, by extension, of all human knowledge. Brought to the theological realm by St. Augustine, the sense reminds the Aristotelian love for sensation (aesthesis) and will equate in the Renaissance to the discovery of nature as a propitious place to call the man outside him. The senses will render to humanity its paradisiacal memory, as St. Augustine says, making the nature to have the consistency and magnificence of a sanctuary: “What kind of sanctuary hast thou built for thyself? Thou hast done this honor to my memory to take up thy abode in it, but I must consider further in what part of it thou dost abide. For in calling thee to mind, I soared beyond those parts of memory, which the beasts also possess, because I did not find thee there among the images of corporeal things. From there I went on to those parts where I had stored the remembered affections of my mind”[3]. Beyond this discovery of the senses, the platonic anamnesis remains the key of the entire liturgical mystery.

Illustrated by the abbey garden, the sanctuary dedicated to a celestial childhood attempted to prove through the sight and odor that Paradise is still part of the affective memory of humanity. A memory stimulated by the remembrance of Eden, which help to increase the Christian faith and transform it in a continuous delight: “thou hast dwelt in my memory, and it is there that I find thee whenever I call thee to remembrance, and delight in thee. These are my holy delights”[4].

The Garden in Shape of Uterus, or Remembrance of the Mother

Like a true gardener, St. Albert the Great describes[5] in De vegetabilibus the construction of a garden with divine odor and smell. The Christian thinker does not forget to link this garden, which he calls viridantia sive viridaria (garden or park full of greenery)[6], to a mystical etymology, reinforcing once more the idea that the perfume of monastic garden descends directly from heaven. In his opinion, the latin lexeme hortus (garden) reminds the divine origin (orthus) of man, as a place where a virginal uterus is the source for a new life. From now on, any hortus voluptatis will have a round shape and will be consecrated to the Virgin Mary. The time spent in this garden of delights will iterate the Chirst childhood and will equate with the rebirth of man. Here on, the Maria hortus (garden of Mary) becomes a mystery in which each planted flower painted the beauty of Mary (Mary picturata omnium florum speciositate)[7], like St. Albert the Great says. The promise of scholastic theology was that the whole earth would become a large garden, and a paradisus voluptatis would fulfill down here on earth like a Maria terra, terra beata, the true promise of pericope about the Garden of Eden from Genesis (2: 8).

From Albertus Magnus, through Pietro de ‘Crescenzi and his Opus ruralium commodorum (about 1306), the small garden without walls, but full of ravishing fragrance, will become the model for all monastery gardens, and through Pierre d’Auvergne, the rector of the University of Paris and the author of a Sententia super librum ‘De vegetalibus et plantis’ (a. 1290), the garden that has its archetype in heaven will enter in the dream of any student of theology.

Echoing the Paradise

From a spiritual geography with theological connotations, the garden that humanises the sky and descends it to the earth will become an important literary topos. Transliterated as a secularized heterotopia, like Foucault and his followers[8] would say, the garden of delights keeps from its theological biography the all perfume of flowers from heaven. For example, in the XVIth cantus of Gerusalemme liberata[9] (1581), Torquato Tasso presents a beautiful garden (il bel giardin) full of various flowers, trees and greenery (fior vari e varie piante, erbe diverse) that delights the eyes (in one vista offere) of those who reach the paradiso of virgin Armida.

In its literary transcription, the garden of pleasure preserves the paradisiacal touch. Such glosses use Shakespeare to paint the “garden rich in gillyvors” from his Winter’s Tale. In addition, the childhood friendship of Leontes and Polixenes sends[10] nostalgically to the same garden full of joy and harmony that has its archetype in the sky. This garden of delights will bring as well in the Renaissance its references to the female uterus, like a sign that the promised terra beata belongs to the Virgin. Such genital references related to a delightful garden are found in the Decameron of Boccacio, more exactly in the garden where the women keep their assembly in the third day; but also in Spencer allegorical garden of Adonis from the 6th & 7th cantos of The Faerie Queene III.

In the Shade of Line Tree from Heaven

The line tree (tilia arbor), to which St. Albert the Great dedicates long paragraphs in its botanical treatise, could not be missed from the beautiful smelling garden of the post-Carolingian monasteries. Beyond the fact that the line tree has “floribus magis aromaticum (most fragrant flowers)”, this tree must be appreciated, as the erudite doctor universalis said, for “its relaxant shadow, which is more shady than others (umbra sua est convenientior quam umbrae aliarum arborum)”[11]. Such attributes accompanied the line tree in its literary pilgrimage. See, for example, the poem Der Lindenbaum (The Line Tree), transformed into lied by Schubert, where Wilhelm Müller (1794-1824) imagines himself in a dialogue with the line tree from the fountain. Here, in its shadow, the poet dreamed in his youth “so many sweet dreams (So manchen süßen Traum)”, and to the maturity, the same tree calls him to give him rest and comfort. In brackets, Goethe makes an almost direct reference to this famous lied in Faust I (v. 948-949), placing the peasants to sing and dance under a majestic line tree. Another example that the line tree met the romantic garden in a magical universe is the poem Dans ce jardin antique (In this old Garden), in which Victor Hugo compares the line trees with priests, and their flower with a censer that sanctifies the memory of human childhood.

We will pursue the literary tribute due to the botanical treatise of St. Albert the Great in gardening as well. Written in the beginning of seventeenth century and entitled Paradisus Terrestris. Or a Garden of All Sorts of Pleasant Flowers… (1629), a handbook of gardening consecrates the line tree as an arbor Paradisi, making it “the goodiest spectacle mine eyes ever beheld for one tree to carry”[12].

The Path to the Fountainhead

St. Albert the Great recommends as central element in his paradisiacal topography, “a very clear spring (fons purissimus)”, which the holy gardener required to be built right in the center of his garden (viridarium), perhaps as a remembrance[13] of river from Heaven: “If it is possible, a very clear spring that fall on stones to be deflected in the middle (Si autem possible sit, fons purissimus in lapide receptus derivetur in medium)”[14].

Hidden in such literary topoi: spring, line tree, garden, it is the nostalgia for paradise, mutatis mutandis, for the lost childhood of humanity. The poetry preserves and expresses maybe the best this nostalgia for what we weren’t meant to be. Drifted away from paradise, the humanity attempts to restore the Paradise in real life, hence the utopian ideals of Morus, Bacon or Karl Marx. Beyond this seductive mystique, the literature remains the real path to paradise.

A path designed once by a saint landscaper, Albert the Great, and glorified, for example, by the Romanian writer Mihai Eminescu, who preserved in his lyrical universe the spring, the line tree, and the garden as invariants of a romantic sensitivity. In this case, the “golden garden” becomes an uchrony marking the wasted time of humanity, its paradisiacal childhood of which remained in the modern time nothing but nostalgia: “he left and kept on walking on the path ahead of him until he came near a beautiful white house, shining in the twilight in the midst of a flower garden. The flowers were in green rows reflected as blue, in dark red rows and white ones, and among them were light butterflies like glittering golden stars. Smell, light and a never-ending song, slow and sweet, penetrating through the butterflies and bees were surrounding the house and garden. Beside the porch were two water barrels and on the porch was seated a beautiful girl spinning wool” (The Tear-Drop Prince Charming, 1870).


[1] M. Eliade, The Quest. History and Meaning in Religion, Chicago & London, 1984, p. 91.

[2] Albertus Magnus, De vegetabilibus, VII, 1, 14, §119, ed. Berolini, 1867, p. 636.

[3] Augustinus, Cofessiones, X, 36.

[4] Idem, X, 35.

[5] See Albertus Magnus, op. cit, VII, 1, Capit.  14: De plantatione viridariorum, §119-125, p. 636-638,

[6] Idem, p. 636.

[7] Albertus Magnus, Maria terra, in Opera omnia, vol. 36, ed. L. Vivès, Parisiis, 1898, p. 400.

[8] See S. Meyer, Temporary  Utopia/ Midlertidige  utopier, Oslo, 2003, p. 131:  “The  garden  provides  an image  of the  world,  a space of simulation  for paradise-like conditions,  a place  of otherness  where  dreams  are realised  in  an  expression  of a better world”.

[9] T. Tasso, Gerusalemme liberata, XVI, 65 sq.

[10] W. Shakespeare, Winter’s Tale, IV, 1, 18-19.

[11] cf. Albertus Magnus, De vegetabilibus, VI, 1, 34, §233, p. 457.

[12] J. Parkinson, Paradisus Terrestris…, London, 1629, p. 610.

[13] See Gen. 2, 10.

[14] Albertus Magnus, De vegetabilibus, VII, 1, 16, §125, p. 638.


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