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In medieval monastery gardens, an uplifting model for something we could all use: Refuge

The Bonnefont Cloister at the Met Cloisters contains hundreds of plants with origins in medieval herb gardens. (Marc Montefusco/The Met Cloisters)
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Enclosed and hidden gardens have always appealed to me as spaces sheltered from the stormy world. But a bunker alone is not enough; a refuge must be uplifting and play to the senses. Where better to find solace and turn inward than in a garden that is quiet and introverted itself?

History is marked by versions of such a place, in Pompeii, in Mughal India, in courtyard gardens of the old Moorish cities of Grenada and Córdoba.

One of the most influential and enduring models is the cloister garden of medieval monasteries. Such self-contained places had standard features: a kitchen garden, a medicinal herb garden and an orchard that doubled as a graveyard (herbs only go so far). At the heart of the monastery, the inhabitants found a simple, four-square turfed courtyard garden framed with a covered walk — the cloister garden.

We know this because at an abbey in St. Gallen, Switzerland, near Lake Constance, the detailed 9th-century plan for a Benedictine monastery survived the Dark Ages and became the progenitor of all Western four-square gardens since.

I often think about how these ancient gardens must have sustained the friars who tilled them, body and soul, and kept them safe from the perils outside the walls.

As for contemporary relevance, the private garden in all its forms has always been a place of succor against the inevitable travails of life. In our current extraordinary moment of plague, quarantine, curfew and unrest, the impulse is to knock on the door of that Swiss abbey (now a cathedral) and ask to borrow the plan of St. Gall.

One gardener who has not had to replicate such a sanctuary is Marc Montefusco, who has been toiling mostly in solitude these past few weeks at the Cloisters in New York, where he is the managing horticulturist. Perched above the Hudson River, the Cloisters is the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s homage to the art, artifacts, architecture and horticulture of the Middle Ages. In its architecture and interiors, it evokes the ancient churches and monasteries of Europe and contains many precious objects that belie the idea that the medieval world was benighted. The gardens, too, using ancient plants and their later derivatives, suggest the state of horticulture and botany were more advanced than we might think.

Montefusco started in his job March 2, and within a couple of weeks, the Met was shuttered, leaving him as an essential worker to tend to the gardens in monklike solitude. “It’s been a curious combination of isolation and a broad view of what’s going on in the community around us,” he said. A medieval cloister garden is meant “to preserve your own interior peace and calm, and to a remarkable degree, that’s exactly what happened here,” he said.

Much of the carved stonework from each of the Cloisters’ gardens came from the Gallic abbeys bearing their names — Cuxa, Bonnefont, Trie. The museum evolved from the collections of the antiquarian George Grey Barnard (1863–1938) and opened in 1938 under the patronage of John D. Rockefeller Jr.

The cloister plan of St. Gall shows a simple grassy square subdivided by four straight paths that meet at a central fountain or similar feature.

This layout may have been basic but was steeped in Christian symbolism. The paths represented the four rivers of Eden as well as the cross of Jesus. The lawns, scythed by the monks, formed a courtyard called a garth. The garden architecture, with its columns, walls, fountains and statuary, was every bit as fine as the fabric of the abbey.

The main garden at the Cloisters, named the Judy Black Garden at the Cuxa Cloister, is constructed in part from salvaged stone from a Pyrenean monastery. It is richly planted with colorful and fragrant herbs and perennials, peaking as the spring progresses to summer.

The interesting aspect of medieval monastic gardening is that there was already a distinction between the sacred and utilitarian gardens, even if some useful plants were steeped in religious symbolism and everything in a medieval monk’s life had immanence.

This duality also defines the gardens at the Cloisters. The medicinal garden is one of eight discrete beds in the Bonnefont Cloister garden, where Montefusco and his gardeners grow such beguiling medieval herbs as viper’s bugloss, self-heal, cow-cockle and restharrow.

The Trie Cloister garden evokes wildflower meadows stylized in the museum’s treasured collection known as “The Unicorn Tapestries,” rich in religious and mystical symbolism.

Gardeners are always looking for novel plants, but there is something alluring about timeless ones, too, along with the idea that people who lived more than 1,000 years ago anticipated with delight the flowering of the lavender, just as we do. In the Trie Cloister, gentians, larkspur, poppies, foxglove and dianthus are among dozens of flowers rooted in medieval species.

Many of these abbeys outlived the age that created them, and their garden forms were borrowed in the more secular landscapes that followed.

But in time, the monasteries became too opulent for their own good. As the garden historian Tom Turner has written: “This was virtually unavoidable, since knowledge, education and skill made monks the best gardeners, the best farmers and the best manufacturers of their day.”

Until the Cloisters can be seen again, Montefusco and some of his colleagues are tending the gardens with a sense of veneration. As he says: “The three interior gardens have to be approached through the building, and it’s hard to walk through these silent halls with their Romanesque and Gothic architecture and not feel surrounded with the contemplative life they originally housed.”

@adrian_higgins on Twitter

Tip of the Week

Late-season perennials can be trimmed by as much as half to encourage compact regrowth in advance of flowering. Asters, caryopteris, Russian sage, chrysanthemums, persicaria and lespedeza all are good candidates for the June chop.

— Adrian Higgins

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