Cloisters and Persian Gardens

The Cloisters is a  branch of New York's Metropolitan Museum, and the only American museum dedicated to the art of the Middle Ages

The renowned Cloisters sits at the northernmost part of the island of Manhattan. Overlooking the Hudson River at Fort Tryon Park, it’s a place out of time: The view across the river was protected when John D. Rockefeller Jr. donated the Palisades on the opposite bank to the state of New Jersey.

The Medieval and cloister gardens
provided shelter from a hostile outside world.  

Its aim is to offer a space for contemplation and prayer, as well as a productive space for altar flowers, herbs for cooking and healing, and fruit and vegetables for eating.

A cloister is a square or rectangular open-air courtyard, surrounded by covered passageways. The yard enclosed within these arcades is known as a garth. 

In a medieval monastic complex, the garth was often situated to the south side of the church, providing a sunny, sheltered place where the monks or nuns could enjoy nature without leaving the monastery.

Herbs and flowers border the paths. The medieval pleasure garden, with its borders of plants chosen for beauty and fragrance, is the ancestor of our own ornamental gardens. 

Here, medieval European species and modern garden plants from Asia and the Americas have been combined to provide color and scent from early spring until late fall.

A fountain is set at the center of the crossed paths that divide the garden into quadrants, each with a grass plot and a pollarded crab apple tree. Lawns were often planted in cloister garths, and instructions for planting thick and level lawns were set forth by the Dominican philosopher and scientist, Albertus Magnus in the thirteenth century. 


In winter, the arcades are glassed in, and the interior walkway becomes a conservatory filled with tender plants such as date palm, orange, rosemary, and bay. Potted bulbs, forced into early bloom, are also on display in late winter and early spring.

Cloister gardens are often not linked to their surrounding building - usually accessed by a side door.  

Though quite different, another walled garden style is the Persian garden
The cloister is a courtyard or quadrangle surrounded by walls and especially by covered walks.

The Gardens

The Cloisters has three gardens dating to the Romanesque and Gothic periods. The Gothic-period Bonnefont Cloister garden is historical, with plantings restricted to medieval species of European origin.

A medieval garden was planted for all five senses; with more than 250 species of herbs, the Bonnefort garden is colorful and fragrant.

Plants are grouped in beds according to general use: culinary, aromatic, magical, medicinal, and art.

The 12th-century Cuxa Cloister was part of a large Benedictine monastery in the Pyrenees. The garden features crossed paths that form quadrants of lawn with four perennial borders.

Medieval in form, the Garden  contains modern species (along with medieval) to assure a varied and long-flowering season.

In the late-Gothic Trie Cloister, every springtime plant is found in The Cloisters’ famous Unicorn Tapestries collection.


The raised beds of the Bonnefont Cloister Herb Garden hold one of the most specialized plant collections in the world. The foundation of the plant list is a ninth-century edict of the emperor Charlemagne, naming 89 species to be grown on his estates. This list has been supplemented by herbals and monastic records, as well as archaeological evidence. The collection is based on the more than 400 species of plants known and used in the Middle Ages.

Plants are grouped and labeled according to their medieval use, whether in cooking, medicine, art, industry, housekeeping, or magic. Most plants had multiple uses, and virtually all plants were believed to have medicinal value. Many herbs, trees, and flowers were used symbolically as well as practically.

Although the plan of the herb garden is typical of a medieval monastic garden, no attempt has been made to replicate that of a particular monastery. The raised beds, wattle fences, and wellhead are all features frequently depicted in medieval sources. Four quince trees grow in the beds at the center of the garden. Tender plants are grown in terracotta pots that can be moved inside in winter, a common gardening practice in northern Europe throughout the late Middle Ages.

The Trie Cloister Garden evokes the idealized gardens and landscapes of the Middle Ages. The joy the medieval world felt upon the return of spring was expressed in their verdant, millefleur tapestries, allegorical poems, and paintings. The garden's plantings are inspired by that cherished medieval setting, the enameled mead or flowering meadow.

While medieval apothecary and vegetable gardens were orderly, with pleasing symmetry and balance, the medieval fantasy garden was a place of unbridled and untamed nature. This ecstatic vision of nature is evident in the Unicorn Tapestries' myriad of flowers and fruits. Regardless of their natural cycles: fall fruits, winter berries, and spring flowers coexist in a vision of an eternal spring. Much of the flora found blooming in the tapestries is cultivated here, though the plants bloom in their proper seasons.

From the south wall of Bonnefont Garden, is an orchard of lady apples and other medieval fruits such as medlar, quince, currants, and elderberries. Orchards were associated with monasteries, manor houses, and parks, and were often enclosed to keep out thieves. A willow hedge separates the orchard precinct from the Museum lawn and the park beyond it. The ground under the fruit trees is planted to evoke the flowering meadow that was a common feature of medieval pleasure grounds.

The Cloisters' orchard meadow is stocked with spring bulbs that naturalize and form large colonies over time. A variety of herbs and flowers reseed themselves each year, and are cut back to the ground in late summer.


The Persian garden is a landscape garden, designed individually and created intentionally as a space embedded in the aesthetic and spiritual context of its past and contemporary cultural, political, and social environment. 

A prominent feature of these formal gardens is a geometric layout following geometric and visual principles, implemented to nature by water channels and basins which divide the enclosed space into clearly defined quarters, a principle that has become known as Chahar Bagh (four gardens), waterworks with channels, basins, fountains and cascades, pavilions, prominent central axes with a vista, and a plantation with a variety of carefully chosen trees, herbs. and flowers. 

The old-Iranian word for such gardens "pari-daizi' expresses the notion of an earthly paradise that is inherent to them. As such, they are a metaphor for the divine order and the unification and protection of the ones who do good. Their counterparts on earth fulfill a similar function. These principles are brought to perfection in the gardens of the emperor as the "good gardener".

The Persian style often attempts to integrate indoors with outdoors, through the connection of a surrounding garden with an inner courtyard.
They embody the Persian concept of an ideal paradise garden, and were built with irrigation channels and canals from the Yamuna River.  The landscape gardens also reflect diversity and development, bound to function, regional and chronological characteristics, as well as technological, know how personal preferences, ambitions, and demands. 

Starting from the 12th to 13th century, tombs for members of the royal family or important personalities were placed into such formal gardens, providing believers a chance to benefit from the spirituality of a venerated person and the particular aura of the garden. European garden design began to influence Persia, particularly the designs of France, and out of Russia and the United Kingdom. Western influences led to changes in the use of water and the species used in bedding.

Iran's dry heat makes shade important in gardens, which would be nearly unusable without it. Trees and trellises largely feature shade; pavilions and walls are also structurally prominent in blocking the sun.

The heat also made water important, both in the design and maintenance of the garden. Irrigation may be required, and may be provided via a form of tunnel called a qanat, that transports water from a local aquifer. Well-like structures then connect to the qanat, enabling the drawing of water. Trees were often planted in a ditch called a juy, which prevented water evaporation and allowed the water quick access to the tree roots.


Medieval Garden Article Sources:
Atlas Obscura
Wikipedia Commons
Historic Medieval Illuminated Manuscripts
and Tapestries
Nightingale Garden Co.
Science Source
Metropolitan Museum of Art

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