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What is a Hortus Conclusus?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 10 November 2016
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A hortus conclusus is an entirely enclosed pleasure garden designed and executed in a medieval style. Such gardens were certainly popular before medieval times, but they reached their height during the medieval period, and most which followed after were designed to mimic medieval gardens. Several features distinguish a hortus conclusus from other types of walled and pleasure gardens, and such gardens are especially common on the grounds of religious facilities like church complexes and monasteries.

The term “hortus conclusus” means “closed garden” in Latin, and originally it was used as a reference to the Virgin Mary. Many paintings of the Virgin Mary reference this, showing her and the infant Jesus in an enclosed environment which is meant to emphasize her purity and the miracle of the virgin birth. Over time, people began to translate the metaphor into physical reality, in the form of meticulously designed enclosed gardens.

A classic hortus conclusus is divided into quadrants by four distinct paths, which may or may not lead anywhere, depending on how the surrounding walls or cloisters are laid out. In the case of paths which do not lead to openings, benches or contemplation niches may be built instead, creating a destination of sorts for the pathway. In the middle of a hortus conclusus, it is also typical to see a fountain, pool, pond, or well, referencing the water of life and Mary's role in bringing life to the infant Jesus.

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In a medieval hortus conclusus, each plant would have been carefully selected for symbolic value, and the garden might have had rotating seasonal plantings with different embedded religious meanings. People were encouraged to wander the garden, pausing at various times to contemplate the religious symbolism in the garden and the nature of faith. The garden could also be used for recreation such as card games, dancing, musical performances, and so forth, and often it was designed to be a cloistered environment for the women of a household.

Some modern gardeners appreciate the religious symbolism of the hortus conclusus, along with the design details of these distinctive medieval gardens. A modern hortus conclusus typically retains the water feature and paths, but may or may not choose plants on the basis of their religious symbolism. More commonly, the plants are arranged in a way which is most aesthetically pleasing, regardless as to their symbolic meaning.

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