Some of you may have visited the Cloisters Museum in New York City. It is a branch of the Metropolitan Museum, and there is also an interesting garden. This Museum displays the famous Unicorn Tapestries which were created in France during the 1500’s. They are an excellent example of the way flower and garden images were used symbolically as a way to communicate religious ideas.
Since most of the people viewing the tapestries during medieval times could not read or write, images from nature were used as a way to communicate spiritual concepts such as renewal and rebirth. The re-occurrence of perennial plants and flowers in each spring season has been a popular religious metaphor over many centuries, as has the mythical unicorn which has frequently been used to symbolize Christ.
Modern day visitors to the Cloisters Museum can view the beautiful and well preserved tapestries and then wander in the museum garden and see examples of the plants that plant historians believe are similar to the ones that are depicted in the beautifully woven wool tapestries.
Exhibits such as these are treasured by plant and flowers lovers. The use of visual images of flowers to celebrate God’s creation and to teach reverence for the natural world, has been an enduring religious theme throughout the centuries.
Of course, the artists who created the Unicorn Tapestries were not creating botanically accurate images of the plants and flowers; they were creating religious images. Nevertheless, many of the plants are recognizable and as we see them and realize we have some of them growing in our own gardens today, it links us with gardeners and plant and flower lovers like us who lived long, long ago.