Albrecht Classen

title.none: Fisher, Flowers (Albrecht Classen)

identifier.other: baj9928.0602.004 06.02.04

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Albrecht Classen, University of Arizona,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2006

identifier.citation: Fisher, Celia. Flowers in Medieval Manuscripts. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004. Pp. 64. ISBN: $19.95 0-8020-3796-8.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 06.02.04

Fisher, Celia. Flowers in Medieval Manuscripts. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004. Pp. 64. ISBN: $19.95 0-8020-3796-8.

Reviewed by:

Albrecht Classen
University of Arizona

There would be hardly any other objects in nature that carried more symbolic and allegorical meaning than flowers in the Middle Ages, if we think, for instance, of the famous Roman de la rose. Medieval manuscript illustrations, especially those from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, powerfully confirm this observation. Flowers in manuscripts serve both as decorations and as symbolic objects, as Fisher argues convincingly. Moreover, vine leaves and ivy leaves appealed to medieval illustrators, whereas by the late Middle Ages artists increasingly endeavored to incorporate other natural elements such as insects, birds, and, above all, flowers, into their manuscript illustrations. Around 1300, for instance, an anonymous writer produced the 'herbal' Circa instans in Southern Italy, which includes remarkable images of flower by an anonymous artist. By the fifteenth century, many Flemish and Italian artists followed this model, delighting in painting countless and increasingly sumptuous flower scenes on the borders and elsewhere.

Celia Fisher turns to a number of individual flower books from the fifteenth century and introduces them through text and fine reproductions Increasingly, realistic approaches determined the depiction of flowers, perhaps because they could carry so many different meanings. In fact, a careful study of flowers in medieval manuscripts can, as Fisher suggests, shed important light on medieval history of mentality and everyday life, though this approach does not find adequate recognition here in theoretical or concrete terms (see the various studies by Peter Dinzelbacher). Nevertheless, as Fisher emphasizes, there are many approaches to studying the meaning of late-medieval flower symbolism, which this slim volume tries at least to touch upon. Fisher introduces a number of manuscripts with most significant illustrations, such as the Belluno Herbal and the Carrara Herbal (the historical circumstances of which are not accurately discussed here). Fisher pays predominant attention to French, Flemish, and English manuscripts, but ignores German and Dutch examples, which makes her general conclusions somewhat one-sided.

The true heyday of flower illustrations did not occur until the late fifteenth century, as reflected by Books of Flowers and Breviaries, many of which Fisher introduces here both with words and images. She is realistic enough to acknowledge the wide range of symbolism of flowers in late- medieval illustrations, but she cannot determine common elements, except for dominant colors, such as blue and pink harmonious. As to strawberries, for instance, she emphasizes that they "could just as well suggest sensual delights as the sweetness of Christian purity, or drops of Christ's redeeming blood" (24). In light of the mysterious "Strawberry Song" by the thirteenth-century German poet Der Wilde Alexander, this observation leaves us baffled, groping for specifics in vain.

Some of the most important flower illustrations can be found in the Hours of Anne of Brittany which was completed in 1508 and which was decorated with many different flowers, whether they were wild or cultivated. The artist, Bourdichon, obviously commanded a thorough familiarity with flower botany, as the illustrations demonstrate, but he preferred spring flowers, as the manuscript illustrations confirm.

The slim volume concludes with a short bibliography, a list of manuscripts, a plant list (common name and botanical name), and an index. The topic finds broad consideration, but there is much left to be desired. Neither the manuscripts nor the flowers discussed here are fully considered to the necessary extent, and one wonders whether Fisher's narrative only 'accompanies' the rich and unquestionably delightful illustration program. She relies mostly on hour books and their illustrations available in the British Library, but we would have liked to know where other major manuscript holdings can be found that would shed light on medieval artists' approaches to flowers. We do not gain a comprehensive understanding of what flowers were truly known in medieval Europe and how artists throughout the ages interpreted flowers. The author has simply selected major manuscripts in the British Library that stand out because of their elaborate schema of flowers, and discussed those in detail, whereas the topic really would have required a comprehensive survey both in terms of manuscripts and botany. Nevertheless, the present volume appeals to the aesthetics and offers wonderful examples of flowers in medieval manuscript illustrations, as the title promises. We are given enough material to whet our appetite, but the need for a much more thorough investigation remains.