The problem with most of my gardening efforts is that when I get excited about growing flowers or herbs, I go out and buy some books about the subject, and that satisfies the impulse entirely, and soon it goes away. I rarely get to the messy business of actually digging around in the dirt with my fingernails, what with worms and bugs and all.
This time I’ve gone so far as to actually get some seeds, thanks to Nora Munro over at The Belfry. I met Nora through one of my favorite medievalists, Jeff Sypeck, over at Quid Plura. His link to “où dort la mélancolie” enchanted and intrigued me. Nora is trying to grow as many authentically medieval plants as she can – but the mid-Atlantic weather isn’t helping. ”I still love the flowery fields in mediaeval paintings, and it pleases more than is probably reasonable that this columbine is exactly the same as the ones in Hugo van der Goes‘ Portinari altarpiece of 1476,” she wrote. Yes, it’s that Portinari family. The altarpiece was commissioned by Tommaso Portinari, an agent for the Medici bank in Bruges, and he’s somehow related to Dante‘s beloved Beatrice.
Can you see the flowers in the altarpiece above? I thought you wouldn’t. Try looking at the photograph from Nora’s garden left. Then compare with the enlargement from the Portinari altarpiece at right. Pretty cool. So I was thrilled when the envelope arrived from Annapolis a few hours ago with … my own seeds.
Now, I had thought columbines are supposed to symbolize folly, as in the “Columbine” character in commedia dell’arte. But Nora corrects me: “During the Middle Ages, the flower was associated with the Holy Spirit (columbine < L. columba, dove). In the Portinari Altarpiece, the detail I linked above with the columbines is in the central panel, as part of a depiction of the nativity, with lilies and irises, both of which were associated with the Virgin.”
The Enclopedia Britannica has yet another version: “The scattered violets indicate Christ’s humility; the columbine flowers represent the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit with which Christ was endowed at birth. The flowers in the albarello (pottery jar) are in royal colours, for Christ was of the royal line of the Israelite King David.”
But the big queston is: will they grow? I’ll let you know how it goes…