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The Medieval Garden Enclosed—Among the Lillies

Margaret Freeman in her office at The Cloisters in 1938. Margaret Freeman joined The Metropolitan Museum of Art as lecturer in Egyptian and medieval art in 1928, and came to The Cloisters when it opened ten years later. Freeman was instrumental in the development of the gardens, the medieval plant list, and the identification and interpretation of plants in the collection.

This is not the lily which today is and tomorrow is cast into the oven; it will blossom for ever.

—Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, Sermon 70 on the Song of Songs, III.6

Margaret B. Freeman was associated with The Metropolitan Museum of Art for fifty-two years, first as a lecturer at the old Cloisters in 1928, then as a curator, and eventually as director of The Cloisters in 1955, succeeding James Rorimer. Charged with the development of the gardens, Ms. Freeman was perhaps the single most important contributor to the list of medieval plants drawn from historical sources, which is still in use here. (The list, which now stands at five hundred species, has been amplified and refined over the course of many years and is still being developed.) She also gave a good deal of time and careful effort to the identification and interpretation of plants in medieval artworks, particularly those in The Cloisters' collection. We have many penciled notes, transcriptions, and plant lists in her hand, as well as drawings; she would lay tracing paper over a reproduction of a medieval art work, carefully delineate the plants, and label the image with the correct botanical name. Ms. Freeman worked closely with the gardeners and kept careful records of the plantings. All these records were invaluable to Susan Moody, the horticulturist in charge from 1979 until 2007, in her restoration and development of the Gardens, and they are still important to me today.

A unicorn in a round fence

From left to right: a large and lovely rendering of Lilium candidum prominently placed in the flowery field below the enclosure of the Unicorn in Captivity; tracing of a woodcut image illustrating the entry for the same species of lily, taken by Freeman from the herbal of Apuleius Platonicus, sometimes known as the Pseudo-Apuleius. The Latin subscription states that this lily was known to the Greeks as "Crinion." 

Lilium candidum, literally "the shining white lily," was one of the two most important garden flowers of the Middle Ages, the other being the rose. The bulb had a number of medicinal uses and was an antidote against the bite of serpents and other venomous creatures. The lily was also a ubiquitous symbol in medieval art, especially associated with the Virgin, with Paradise, and with a number of saints. In her book The Unicorn Tapestries, published in 1976, Freeman devoted one and a half pages to the use and significance of the lily. 

A yellowed page with a black ink design of a flowerThe scanned images of her notes and transcriptions in the body of this post were the basis for her explication.

In addition to the notes and transcriptions in Margaret Freeman’s hand, the Gardens’ archives also include a number of tracings, like this replication of a woodcut from the first printed edition of the herbal of Pseudo-Apuleius.

The Unicorn in Captivity, 1495–1505 South Netherlandish Wool warp with wool, silk, silver, and gilt wefts; Overall: 12 ft. 7/8 in. x 99 in. (368 x 251.5 cm) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of John D. Rockefeller Jr., 1937 (37.80.6) See the Collection Database to learn more about this work of art.

Today's is the hundredth post to The Medieval Garden Enclosed, and it seemed fitting to pay tribute to the person who did so much of the groundwork for the cultivation and interpretation of the medieval gardens and their plants here at The Cloisters. We now enjoy the use of tools that allow us to access and assimilate information at a far more rapid rate than in Margaret Freeman's day, but we continue in her debt.

In "Cloistered Plants" (see abstract), a Talk of the Town piece that appeared in the March 29, 1952, issue of The New Yorker, the reporter visits The Cloisters to be "taken in hand, culturally and horticulturally” by James R. Rorimer and Margaret B. Freeman, and is brought to the Unicorn Tapestries to view woven examples of the plants just seen in the gardens:

"Look at that lovely primrose," said Miss F. “It's really a better illustration than the ones you find in the old herbals. And here's a wonderful weaving of a blackberry bush, all prickly." . . . "Of the hundred and one different kinds of plants shown in the tapestries, sixteen can't be identified at all,” Miss Freeman said. “Most of the remaining eighty-five have been definitely identified, but a few are questionable. The pimpernel, for example or what appears to be a pimpernel has four petals instead of five.”

Margaret Freeman had published Herbs for the Medieval Household, based on early printed herbals in the Met's collection, in 1943. Her book The Unicorn Tapestries, published in 1976, after her retirement, includes a chapter on "The Groves, the Flowery Fields, and the Gardens." The notes in her hand seen below formed the basis of her explication of the uses and significances of the white lily published in that chapter.

Above, from left to right: Penciled note in Margaret Freeman's hand on the identification and significance of the lily depicted in The Unicorn in Captivity; a Latin passage on the lily by the twelfth-century theologian Hugh of St. Victor, transcribed from the the medicinal virtues of the white lily, transcribed from Bancke's Herbal by Freeman.

Above, from left to right: A note on the proper time to plant lily bulbs, taken by M. Freeman from The Goodman of Paris, a modern English translation of the fourteenth-century Menagier de Paris; the cover and text of a brochure on French-grown Lilium candidum bulbs from the archives; then as now, every effort was made to provide authentic plants for the gardens of The Cloisters.



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