'Plants and Flowers' show at the Walters Art Gallery rather grows on you


In a Gothic interior, the scene of the Annunciation takes place with the angel gesturing toward a slightly bemused but not particularly surprised Virgin Mary. Between them, as more or less the picture's centerpiece, stands a pot of lilies, which in the 15th century would be known to all as signifying Mary's purity. Around this image, elaborate foliage featuring acanthus leaves fills up the page of this French book of hours.

Such motifs were common at the time, and they form the subject of the Walters Art Gallery's latest manuscript exhibit, "Plants and Flowers in Illuminated Manuscripts" (through Oct. 6). As the show's text points out, life was largely rural in the Middle Ages, people were closer to the land and what it produced, and it was only natural that plants and flowers would be represented in the arts of the time and would play heavily symbolic roles.

The 19 examples chosen for the show, some almost as tiny as a postage stamp, cover a broad range of both plant types and kinds of representation, from the realistic blossoms in the borders of 15th century Flemish manuscripts to purely imaginary depictions of the tree of knowledge and the tree of life in the Garden of Eden.

In fact, while the idea for this exhibit was admirable, it is somewhat flawed by this breadth of approach. In trying to cover a subject too large for a show of this size (it even includes a scientific volume and a 19th century book), it skims over a great deal and cannot focus on anything in depth. Surely the subject would have been more than big enough had it been limited to actual plants and flowers, rather than such tangential subjects as the tree of Jesse's family or the tree of biblical kings.

That said, let us now praise "Plants and Flowers" for much rewarding information and many visual delights. The lily and the violet, the iris and the carnation, the rose and the daffodil, the daisy, the columbine and the periwinkle tiptoe through these pages.

To us they are pretty, but to people of the time, we learn, they also had specific meaning. The rose, the daisy and the violet, like the lily, were associated with the Virgin. The iris and the columbine represented sorrow; white flowers purity, blue ones faith. Among other interesting tidbits to be picked up, does everyone know that a rosary was originally made of different colored roses? I didn't.

These works virtually quiver with life; joining the plants and flowers and biblical figures are contemporary people, planting a garden, mowing and reaping, wooing. And there are other kinds of life, too -- birds and butterflies and snails, even a caterpillar and a ladybug.

Now there's a subject for a future show: bugs in illuminated manuscripts. I promise not to complain if it contains fanciful bugs and mythological bugs as well as real bugs.

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