Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.04.55 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.04.55

Helena Bodin, Ragnar Hedlund (ed.), Byzantine Gardens and Beyond. Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis. Studia Byzantina Upsaliensia, 13.   Uppsala:  Uppsala Universitet, 2013.  Pp. 256.  ISBN 9789155486273.  SEK 289.00.  

Reviewed by Jane Draycott, University of Wales Trinity Saint David (

Table of Contents

This volume comprises seven papers originally presented in a symposium organised by the Nordic Byzantine Network and held at the Swedish Collegium for Advanced Study in 2011, with two additions that were commissioned subsequently. The stated purpose of the symposium was to bring together a variety of different perspectives on Byzantine garden culture, and by and large the nine papers published here achieve this, although the arguments of some are significantly more developed than others. The contents of the volume can be divided into three sections: the first three papers focus on the Byzantine garden itself, the next four focus on the Byzantine garden as a concept, and the remaining two focus on the reception of different aspects of the Byzantine garden. There is minimal overlap or repetition of content (even the examples used to prove similar points are entirely different, and intriguingly so) and thus the volume is a testament to the myriad possibilities of studying Byzantine garden culture, no matter what your academic discipline.

Ingela Nilsson’s paper ‘Nature Controlled By Artistry: the Poetics of the Literary Garden in Byzantium’ opens with a brief summary of Eustathios of Thessalonike’s use of the garden motif in his account of the capture of Thessalonike by the Normans from the kingdom of Sicily in 1185 as a means of establishing from the outset of the volume just how important gardens were in Byzantine culture. Nilsson acknowledges that the very term ‘Byzantine garden’ is problematic, as it encompasses entities ranging from the hunting grounds of suburban parks to the pleasure gardens of palaces to the productive gardens used to grow fruit and vegetables, but emphasises that all variations had in common the fact that they were a source of pleasure to the visitor. She notes the importance of ekphrasis for the study of Byzantine gardens, both as a means of reconstructing actual Byzantine gardens, and interpreting allegorical ones. This foreshadows several of the volume’s subsequent contributions. Antony Littlewood’s paper ‘Gardens of the Byzantine World’ likewise foreshadows the volume’s subsequent contributions, for despite his initial disclaimer that information on Byzantine gardens is highly elusive, he presents a magisterial survey of the literary, archaeological, and visual evidence for Byzantine gardens. To those new to Byzantine garden culture, this paper is the most accessible and informative. It both summarises research already undertaken, and suggests potentially fruitful directions for future endeavours. Kristoffel Demoen’s paper ‘A Homeric Garden in Tenth-Century Constantinople: John Geometres’ Rhetorical Ekphraseis of his Estate’ attests to the continuing importance of classical literature and culture for the people of Byzantium by focusing on the tenth century author John Kyriotes Geometres. He highlights two rhetorical letters in which Geometres not only describes actual gardens, but also incorporates allusions to Homeric ones (first Mount Olympos, and second the garden of Alkinoos) that were clearly intended to be understood by the letters’ recipient.

Helena Bodin’s paper ‘“Paradise in a Cave”: the Garden of the Theotokos in Byzantine Hymnography’ surveys and discusses how the garden of the Mother of God is utilised in the hymns of the Byzantine - and wider Orthodox Christian - tradition. The garden is in turn an ideal space, an allegorical space, a topos, a literary motif, a trope. Most significantly, Byzantine hymns repeatedly depict the Mother of God opening a closed door or gate and making sealed or locked places accessible, and both inviting and welcoming people into the garden. Jørgen Bakke’s paper ‘The Vanished Gardens of Byzantium: Gardening, Visual Culture, and Devotion in the Byzantine Orthodox Tradition’ builds on Bodin’s, and examines what Bakke describes as ‘devotional gardening’. He explores the role of gardens and gardening both as an epistemology of inner vision, and as a spiritually fortifying activity. This combination raises the possibility that there is a spiritual benefit to viewing and tending a beautiful garden. Olof Heilo’s paper ‘Guarding and Gardening: Syria from Byzantine to Islamic Rule’ redirects the focus of the volume from the gardens of the Byzantine world to the gardens of Islam, and the way in which, in the aftermath of the Umayyad conquest of former Byzantine provinces, the efforts made to direct attention away from war and towards peace incorporated elements of the Byzantine conception of the garden as a paradise. Unfortunately, this paper is much shorter (six and a half pages of text, three and a half pages of illustrations) and, more importantly, less comprehensive than the others in the volume, reading almost as an abstract or summary of a more extensive piece of scholarship. Per-Arne Bodin’s paper ‘The Terrestrial Paradise: the Garden as a Topos in Russian Medieval Culture’ focuses on two rare examples of Russian theological literature dating to before the eighteenth century, one a letter from Vasilii the Archbishop of Novgorod to Fedor the Bishop of Tver, and the other a story of two monks from Novgorod. Both texts are concerned with the garden of Paradise. Vasilii’s letter (which has been tentatively dated to 1347) argues that despite the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, paradise still exists on earth, while the story of the monks (which dates from the seventeenth century) depicts the monks searching for a place where heaven and earth meet. Bodin notes that there are distinct differences in the depiction of paradise before and after iconoclasm, and that the conceptions of paradise found in the Russian texts are more similar to those depicted before iconoclasm.

Inger Larsson’s paper ‘Beyond Byzantium: Swedish Medieval Herbalism and Plant Names’ approaches the perennial problem of securely identifying the plants mentioned in ancient literature, and explores the Swedish reception of classical and medieval texts devoted to plants. She concludes that there was extensive foreign influence on Swedish botany, the plant and plant name repertoire, knowledge of the plants’ assumed or real medicinal properties, and the formation of new textual genres in Swedish for expressing this knowledge. Kjell Lundquist’s paper ‘White and Red Lilies from Constantinople: “Lilium album Byzantinum” and “Lilium rubrum Byzantinum”’ likewise questions whether it is possible to securely identify actual plant species from literary references and descriptions, and attempts to identify two particular types of plant with powerful classical and biblical symbolic associations that were designated ‘Byzantine’ in the late 1500s, over a century after the fall of the Byzantine Empire. He concludes, however, that these plants had nothing whatsoever to do with Byzantium or Byzantine gardens, and that by the sixteenth century the term ‘Byzantine’ was something akin to a trademark.

Throughout its exploration of the cultural transfer of the Byzantine garden to the West, Byzantine Gardens and Beyond takes great pains to place the gardens of Byzantium in an appropriate historical, cultural, and social context, not only making clear the debt owed to the gardens of Graeco-Roman antiquity, but also making clear the debt that is in turn owed to the gardens of Byzantium by those not only of the Mediterranean, but also the Near and Middle East, and northern Europe. Each paper is supplemented by extensive footnotes, and it is stated early on that, due to the repetition of references to key pieces of scholarship, there are not nine separate bibliographies but one comprehensive one, in addition to a list of specialist internet resources. It boasts almost one hundred high quality full colour illustrations. These are particularly valuable in the case of ancient manuscripts where the fine detail facilitates the reading and interpreting of the text in conjunction with the relevant paper’s discussion of it, but also a sheer pleasure to view. The volume is a valuable addition not just to the disciplines of Greek, Roman, and Byzantine history respectively, but also to the discipline of garden history.

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