The Flowers of Exeter

"The Flowers of Exeter - The ideas concealed within the Decoration", M. W. Tisdall, 2004, 67 pges, 93 color illustrations - Charlesfort Press, 23 Furzehatt Road, Plymouth. PL9 8QX. UK., January 2005 - Hardcove £15.00, Paperback £10.00 plus £5.00, for packing and airmail postage to the U.S., payment by £ draft - immediate shipment from stock.

(Now also available from amazon.co.uk - payment by $ credit card, same prices plus their shipping charge - 2-3 weeks shipment)

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"The Flowers of Exeter" by our U.K. correspondent, M. W. Tisdall is an in depth analysis of the flower and foliage carvings of Exeter Cathedral.

These sculptured carvings remarkably mirror the symbolism of the Flowers of Our Lady of medieval rural popular religious tradition - evidencing the detailed familiarity of the 13th century craftsman stone carvers with both the forms of the flowers and foliage in nature, and also their symbolism and other associations which would quicken the reflections of the faithful entering the cathedrals of the period in England and on the European continent.

Of these engraved flower symbols the author states in the Introduction, "the foliage bosses are usually ignored and dismissed as purely decorative. It is possible however to find that they provide a wealth of associations,,,that were well known at the time. They do not teach, rather they act as triggers to the memory to give colour to the spiritual life"; and, "the sudden and widespread appearance of recognizable species must be based on a coherent code of theological thought".

The preservation of the Flowers of Our Lady in the stone carvings of the cathedrals is solid corroboration of the inference as to their incorporation in medieval culture made from the hundreds of symbolic religious names of these flowers - preserved from medieval oral tradition in the research of botanists, folklorists and lexicographers,

Of this the author states,

"Flowers provide a backdrop of potential associations that can be accessed at leisure. The themes will be new to many but they are widely dispersed in literature and have been collected here to show the age of thinking demonstrated by our medieval ancestors. Some people say, and none more charmingly than E. Male, 'that artists, though under supervision when charged to express the religious thoughts of their day, happily for us were left to decorate the churches with innocent flowers at will.'"

However, recourse to the religious symbolism and associations of the medieval Flowers of Our Lady - as viewed in nature, and as mirrored in the flower and foliage carvings of the medieval cathedrals - was lost for a time in religious and gardening culture through the Marian minimalizing Anglican and Protestant reformations, and the concurrent introduction of printing, whereby it was the secular flower common names and associations that were written down in the early, definitive gardening books.

With the ending of medieval culture, the engravings of the flowers came thus to be regarded as just decoration - of which the author cites the observation of the authority, M. Camille that "Nothing is ever just decoration, especially in Gothic art, although such objects continue to be classified as such" (today).

Happily, the contemporary primary re-appreciation of the symbolic richness of the Flowers of Our Lady in nature and gardening will be furthered through the "Flowers of Exeter", whose examination of the sculptured images of some fifty of these, and whose excellent bibliography, will be invaluable for those seeking further familiarity with and devotion through the religious symbolism of all Flowers, Shrubs and Trees of Our Lady.

Exemplary of the Exeter carvings is the golden rose without thorns illustrating the book cover, shown here, which in the book frontispiece is shown on its ground of stars and a crescent moon, all symbols of the Virgin Mary.

Also the author hopes others will discover with respect to the symbolism of the stone carvings of flowers what we, in our experience as Mary Gardeners, have discovered with respect to the flowers themselves, "that when one understands their underlying significance appreciation of their beauty will be greatly enhanced". This is because in reflecting on their symbolism one looks on the carvings more carefully and more frequently such that one comes to see them illuminatively. "We tend to know about things where they (the medieval faithful) might know them intimately. When they 'read' a carving they savoured, explored and delighted in the rich associations that would be available."

In this, "The Flowers of Exeter", quotes from the saints with respect to the richness of religious symbols:

St. Thomas Aquinas:
"To transmit the Things of God and the Spirit by means of corporeal similitudes is advantageous."
"The most hidden things are the sweetest."

Attributed to St. Gregory: "Images serve for three things:
(1) to stir people's minds to think on Christ's incarnation and on his passion etc.
(2) to stir people's affection and heart to devotion; for often people are more stirred by sight than by hearing or reading.
(3) Their ordainment as a token and a book to the common people, that they may be able to read in imagery that which clerics read in books."

to which we add: St. Ignatius of Loyola (in "Spiritual Exercises"):
"In a visible contemplation or meditation...the composition will be to see the corporeal...thing with the sight of the imagination. . . .

"If the person who is making the contemplation, takes the true groundwork of the (scriptural) narrative, and...finds something which makes the events a little clearer or brings them a little more home to him...he will get more spiritual relish and fruit, than if (others) had much explained and amplified the meaning of the events, For it is not knowing much, but realizing and relishing things interiorly, that contents and satisfies the soul. . ."

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