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Unit 3. Adding Symbols

Hieros October 21, 2022

In the previous unit we talked about the form and shape of the garden. Now we’re going to talk about the visual details that we put into it. In a separate unit we’ll talk about the plants that we’re going to put into the garden, but first let’s consider how we’re going to create meaning in the garden through objects that have a symbolic character.

            In the ornaments section of a modern garden centre you will probably find some concrete cherubs, a Venus de Milo, a Buddha or two, some Japanese lanterns and a variety of garden gnomes. Such mass-produced figures are often, though not invariably, ugly and cheap-looking. And if you cram too many of them together in a garden you will create visual indigestion and an ensemble without any coherent symbolic meaning. As a first step you need to decide what kind of mood you aim to create and what message or messages you wish to convey. By way of a case study, take a look at this video about the garden that my wife and I created at our home in Lower Saxony, north Germany, combining poetry, visual art and horticulture. The intended mood is mythical and magical. Hence we call this a Garden of the Mysteries.

Our Garden of the Mysteries

            If you look at the motifs in the great gardens of Europe you will see that, more often than not, they are taken from the classical mythology of ancient Greece and Rome. These are ideally suited to a garden setting partly because many of them represent different aspects of nature. But elements from Celtic and Germanic mythology are equally at home in a garden. Some of these are shown in the second video on our garden.

            Let’s look, for example, at the garden of Versailles, the palace of Louis XIV. Louis called himself the Sun King, and so in the garden the solar motif is writ large.

The Apollo Fountain is the focal point of the whole garden. Everything in the garden revolves around this image of the sun god, just as the whole kingdom revolved around the Sun King. So there are statues of the planetary deities, and there are fountains of the four seasons, representing the solar year, and other elements underlining the solar theme. Now you might think: That’s all very well, but you can’t create a solar garden in a modern back yard. Yes, you can, but simply on a smaller and less ambitious scale. To give you an example, here is an earlier garden that we created when we lived in a terrace house in Bremen. Here the sun and the solar year form the central theme.

The sides of the sundial are carved in relief with images symbolizing the four compass directions and the four elements: a tree for north and earth, a feather for east and air, flames for south and fire, and waves for west and water. An additional symbol for south is the obelisk in the background, which, in ancient Roman tradition, represents a solidified ray of sunlight. And to the right, not visible in the photograph, was an urn filled with seashells to represent the water element. To balance the solar theme, the paving is laid out roughly in the form of a cresent moon. We also had a small front garden (below right) where we added a miniature version of the Stone of Good Fortune at Goethe’s Garden House in Weimer (below left), symbolizing heaven and earth and the fixed and movable principles in nature.

Photo: Dr. Bernd Gross, CC BY-SA 3.0 DE via Wikimedia Commons

Above: the Stone of Good Fortune at Goethe’s Garden House, Weimer. Right: our mini version in the front garden of our former house in Bremen.

The following are some other examples of garden features representing a particular theme

This charming statue of Little Red Riding Hood and the wolf is found in a park in Berlin filled with statuary evoking the world of fairy tales.

And here are two features in Thieles’ Garden, Bremerhaven, representing the theme of nature spirits. Left: the flute-playing god Pan. Right: Christopher rubbing shoulders with a mischievous-looking faun.

This is the Garden of the Tarot in Tuscany, created by the French artist, the late Niki de Saint Phalle, with a series of striking sculptures depicting the Tarot trumps. Here in the foreground is the Sun, and in the background the Hierophant or Pope.

This is a feature in the garden of Little Sparta, created by the poet and artist, the late Ian Hamilton Finlay, and his wife Sue in the Pentland Hills near Edinburgh from the 1960s. Three themes converge in the garden: (1) classical mythology; (2) the iconography of the French Revolution – in this sculpture the two are combined in the head of the French Revolutionary leader Saint Just, depicted as the god Apollo; (3) warlike motifs – bird tables in the form of aircraft carriers, gateposts topped by grenades instead of pineapples, and the like.

And here is an example from our own garden: a circle of flat stones, inscribed with runes, the ancient alphabet of the Nordic peoples, used as a magical and divinatory system. In the background is a bench dedicated to the Norns, the three Nordic goddesses of fate. This is an example of how you can work with very simple materials to create a garden of sacred meaning. With a set of flagstones and a chisel you could create a circle of images or symbols representing the Tarot trumps, the Zodiac, the planets, various mythological figures and much else.

Exercises

  1. Say which of the above-mentioned symbolic themes appeals to you most and why.
  2. Give some other examples from gardens you have known.
  3. Choose a theme for your own garden and describe some of the things that it would feature.
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