Serpent of Pleasure: Emergence and Difference in the Medieval Garden of Love

Serpent of Pleasure: Emergence and Difference in the Medieval Garden of Love

Barnett, Rod

Landscape Journal, Vol.28:2 (2009)

Abstract: Set apart from the normal realm of moral judgment, the medieval garden of love is usually seen as a site that embodies the carnal and reprehensible human desires that humans must renounce in order to find God. This essay challenges that reading. It proposes instead that visual and verbal representations of the garden of love show it as a place where humans encounter the operations of emergence and difference, and through an immersion in the paradoxical condition of love discover a more vital humanity. The garden of love is a poetic and philosophical space in which humans recognize themselves as part of the complex and unpredictable systems that comprise the world. The garden places humans both within nature and in distinction from it, and its message is that human nature is to be honored not by transcending the condition of becoming, but by an immersion in the play of paradox and ambiguity that characterize it. This reading places garden-making, the first and founding practice of landscape architecture, at the forefront of contemporary rediscoveries of the role of complex adaptive systems in landscape architectural discourse.

The medieval garden of love plays a historically critical—but undervalued—role in the imaginative repertoire of landscape architecture. The garden of love calls attention to the condition of emergence, or becoming, as a specific and distinctive characteristic of landscape discourse. It appears in medieval art as a visual and verbal topos that bears associations as a result of its appearance in many diverse works as a memorable or highly charged cluster of meanings. As with rhetorical topoi in general, these meanings are not delimited but can broaden and deepen as the figure is used and reused by different writers and artists. To medieval artists, garden topoi such as the locus amoenus, the biblical hor tus conclusus and the earthly paradise were available from a genealogy of garden depictions that include Theocritus, Homer, Ovid, Virgil, and the Bible, as well as nonclassical mythic and oral traditions. The idea of becoming, as opposed to being, has a long history and forms part of this genealogy. Through an analysis of the erotic and transgressive nature of the garden, I hope to show how landscape architecture fits into this web of meanings

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