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Medieval trees

I was startled one day to see a tree on a city street in Spain (possibly in Oviedo) that looked just like one of the stylized trees in a medieval miniature. It had been so tightly pruned that it was no more than a few meters high and had pompoms of leaves at the end of short branches. It looked almost exactly like this tree in a depiction of Moses before the Burning Bush. I’d assumed the pom-pom tree was a whimsical invention of the artist. Instead it turned out to be a depiction of a type of pruning.

Copy of a medieval depiction of Moses before the Burning Bush. Original source lost. This is my own drawing.

Many medieval images depict scenes in towns or in gardens – domesticated landscapes. I expected there to be a lot of small, symmetrical trees there, since that’s what trees look like in that context. But what would trees look like when depicted in wilderness settings?

Here’s an example of a king being gored by a wild boar in a forest, in a painting from 1314. Very naturalistic trees. But the trees are not the subject, either. They are merely indicators of forest.
This is a delightful hunting scene. The forest in the background is playfully done, and with great artistry, too.
Hunting is a useful context for finding depictions of trees, and I’m trying to look for things well before 1500 (this one is from the early 1300s). But I’ve not found any images in which the trees in themselves are featured – they are most often a contextual background, or sometimes a useful feature (as when someone climbs a tree in the story).

More on this in the future, perhaps.

Dramatic landscapes

I was gently surprised yesterday to notice how many trees have very even, symmetrical shapes. Some are scraggly, squiggly, ziggy-zaggy, yes, but many have a species-specific crown shape that can be spotted even in a forested landscape seen at a distance. One just off to my left in that moment had a perfectly even curved crown. Another had puffs of leaves at the end of each branch; another was not just rounded on the top of the crown, but round all the way around, making a lollipop sort of shape like a child might draw. Then there are the ferny, pointy, skinny, flat and dozens of other shapes.

I thought I’d illustrate this post with some ‘trees in art’ found on wikimedia commons, but many of the paintings that resulted from that search featured dramatic trees that stood out in unusual ways – half dead, gnarly, enormous and craggy, twisted by the wind, and so on.

Here’s an example:

Or, looking back a couple centuries, to make sure it wasn’t mostly a 19th or 20th century phenomena:

I lost the original post, so am jumping ahead in what was originally a lengthier (and probably more tedious) thought process: I began to wonder if nature in and of itself, such as a featured dramatic tree, was a later development in Western art, and whether early depictions of trees in landscapes or as features would show a similar attention to dramatic trees.

So off to poke around some medieval art and see what I find. I’ll especially look for scenes that do not take place in a town or in a palace garden, to see how wild trees are depicted.

Holy Word

As I was working on the previous post I wrote about how the poetry and old language reminded me of ornament on clothing. In fact, I vaguely remembered some snippets of Scripture that refer to “variety”, with this meaning of elaborate ornament. When I went searching, I found this:

“The daughters of kings have delighted thee in thy glory. The queen stood on thy right hand, in gilded clothing; surrounded with variety.”
[Psalms 44:10]

In fact, I was swept into the beauty of the beginning of that Psalm, too, which is (was) chanted at various times in the ancient liturgy of the Church, such as at the clothing of religious sisters, or at the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel and other Marian feasts, and at the feasts of some Holy Virgins, such as Saint Lucy. The chant is titled Eructavit cor meum, if you wish to search further on the subject, you can use this Chant database or other online resources. It goes:

[2] My heart hath uttered a good word: I speak my works to the king; My tongue is the pen of a scrivener that writeth swiftly. [Eructavit cor meum verbum bonum; dico ego opera mea regi. Lingua mea calamus scribae velociter scribentis.]

[3] Thou art beautiful above the sons of men: grace is poured abroad in thy lips; therefore hath God blessed thee for ever. [Speciosus forma prae filiis hominum, diffusa est gratia in labiis tuis; propterea benedixit te Deus in aeternum.] (Source)

And then a bit later is the part about variety (the whole psalm is gloriously beautiful, I am struggling not to post it all!):

[9] Myrrh and stacte and cassia perfume thy garments, from the ivory houses: out of which [Myrrha, et gutta, et casia a vestimentis tuis, a domibus eburneis; ex quibus delectaverunt te]

[10] The daughters of kings have delighted thee in thy glory. The queen stood on thy right hand, in gilded clothing; surrounded with variety. [filiae regum in honore tuo. Astitit regina a dextris tuis in vestitu deaurato, circumdata varietate.] (And there’s the varietate that I was remembering.)

[11] Hearken, O daughter, and see, and incline thy ear: and forget thy people and thy father’s house.[Audi, filia, et vide, et inclina aurem tuam; et obliviscere populum tuum, et domum patris tui.] (You might recognize this as an antiphon chant often found in Marian liturgies and the Masses of Holy Virgins.)

[12] And the king shall greatly desire thy beauty; for he is the Lord thy God, and him they shall adore. [Et concupiscet rex decorem tuum, quoniam ipse est Dominus Deus tuus, et adorabunt eum.]

In any case, in the interest of comparison I was going to post a modern translation, too, but I was appalled to find that it is so changed that though for some scholarly purposes it may be ‘more accurate’ linguistically it destroys my relationship with the Holy Word. When centuries of chant, art, poetry, commentary, and prayer and based on a specific holy text, and millions of believers have lived and loved that text, to toss it out and replace it with something ‘more accessible’ or ‘more accurate’ completely misses the point.

In the interests of love of my Holy Mother Church, here are the two aforementioned antiphons in a variety of musical settings:


Look at the delicate dance of these not-so-foreign words, from an Anglo-Norman text. The language is a playful blend of what are now English and French. It really is near enough to be comprehensible, if one already knows the subject matter. These variations on languages remind me of the ornament of clothing with gold, lace and precious stones – something that takes the ordinary and makes it extraordinary.

Here’s a small example, from the site, which includes a dictionary and a variety of texts for your enjoyment.

The first text is: “a 14th century copy of a 13th century Anglo-Norman MS. containing the Apocalypse of St. John with a commentary, followed by a dissertation on The Seven Deadly Sins. This copy, which I have called The Giffard Manuscript, exhibits the Apocalypse and Commentary in rhyming couplets…”

Rhyming couplets? Behold:

         1520  ‘E li secund aungele suna sa busine,
                   E ausi come un grant munt se encline
                   Ardaunt de fu e est envé
                   Deske en la mer e tresbusché,
         1524  E la tierce part de la mer est fete en pou de hure  
                   Saunc, e muert la tierce part de la creature
                   Ke aveit alme en la mer,
                   E la tierce part des niefs i vi joe periller.’  
         1528  Le businer al secund aungele e le sun
                   Signefie ke la grant predicaciun
                   Ke fu primes a Jueus par les apostles fete,
                   Si en est pus de eus as paens retrete.
         1532  Çoe ke li grant muntz ardaunt
                   Est envee en la mer parfunde e graunt
                   Signefie ke li deables orguillus,
                   Ki est enreveres e ennuuius,
         1536  Aveit leissur de nuire en ceste munde,
                   Ke est signefié par la mer ke surunde.   (Source)

Which one might be able to see is a restating of the Scripture: “And the second angel sounded the trumpet: and as it were a great mountain, burning with fire, was cast into the sea, and the third part of the sea became blood: And the third part of those creatures died, which had life in the sea, and the third part of the ships was destroyed.” (Revelations 8:8-9, from the Douay-Rheims translation, available here among other places.) And this is then followed by an interpretation, in rhyme, that goes on for a few stanzas before the next section of Scripture is recited. Especially in that it is rhymed, this seems a text intended for recitation out loud.

Reading this, and reading the introductory material (at the top of the same page) left me a bit in awe. I thought about the attention to detail and creativity and flourishing in the all the arts that have sprung from our faith over the centuries. Which also led me to a sorrow that I will comment in another post.


A couple of cultural quirks in Brazil, at least in the circles I run in, involve re-using things. A few examples:

Every time I give a gift, the recipient carefully unwraps it, returns the wrapping material to me, and then appreciates the gift. With one friend I’ve made a running joke out of re-using the exact same wrapping paper (a lovely Florentine print) over and over, refolding it each time to fit the gift.

If you give someone some leftovers or cake in a Tupperware-type container you will get the container back, at least neatly washed and dried. In some cases it will be returned filled with an equivalent dessert or snack. I am less diligent about returning the containers, so I have a drawer full of all sizes and colors and shapes. I am very aware, however, of where each one came from, and when I know I will see a certain person again I do try to remember to dig up their container and take it along.

The subject came to mind today when I was buying fancy trim for sewing projects. Good quality trim is expensive and hard to come by. I was pleased to see one time that the most beautiful medieval liturgical embroideries were often cut off of their original vestments or altar frontals and re-used on new garments at a later date. Hopefully this generations’ best sewing efforts will be the seeds of the next generations re-use of trim, embroidery and good lace!

An example of the re-use of older embroidery on newer vestments can be seen in this article:

Wearing old clothes

This video reminded me of some anecdotes, which I have jotted after the video.

  1. I briefly competed in carriage driving, at pleasure shows that took place on historical properties around New York and Connecticut. The appropriate clothing for this activity included: boots, stockings, long skirt, long sleeved blouse, driving apron (a sort of heavy fabric apron tied over your clothing to protect it from the dirt kicked up by the horses), leather gloves, and a large straw hat. One of the first things I noticed was that I didn’t need any sunscreen or bug repellent. In fact, I felt surprisingly comfortable, despite the summer heat. I had my own private shade pod!
  2. My mother remembers that she began making all her own clothes when she was a young teen, and that in high school she had 3 skirts that lasted the whole four years. She hemmed them liberally so that the hem could be raised or lowered each year to match the current trends. As Abby Cox mentions in the video above, there’s something special about using clothing you make yourself. It fits you, you can adjust it to your changing body shape, and you decide what you want to wear.
  3. Abby Cox also mentions the bodily privacy that the full clothing of the past or in some other cultures offers, particularly to women. She mentions how modern clothing is usually so tight fitting and small that every detail of a person’s physique is on display. I thought that was a very interesting perspective. It brought to mind the one time I tried on a burqa that an acquaintance had brought back from a trip to Bahrain. It was immensely cozy. The sense of privacy was truly refreshing. I only tried it on, but that brief experience was enough to make me aware of the existence of that sense of privacy, which I only otherwise experienced if wearing a costume of some kind.

God willing I will begin making my own dresses this year. I’ve ordered my first two patterns and am buying fabric…. I am confident in my hand sewing skills after spending a year embroidering and making clothing for saint’s statues. News to follow!