From then to now

It’s late May and the irises are in full bloom. Irises are definitely in my top ten favourite garden flowers along with roses, foxgloves, poppies, lilies, hellebores, tulips, clematis, dahlias, and, those great favourites of the medieval illuminators, columbines. Each May when the aquilegias flower I think of illuminated manuscripts and the unnamed artisans who spent hours in their workshops decorating religious texts.

Columbines (aquilegia vulgaris) decorate this page from the Isabella Breviary, 1497, Flemish. MS18851, f.124

And, it wasn’t just aquilegias that filled the margins, for illuminators included images of the different flowers found growing in their own local districts. From about 1300 onwards there is a wonderful variety of illustrations including daisies, honeysuckle, clover, cornflowers, the dog rose along with the blossom of fruit trees and the blooms of flowering herbs.

Irises decorating the Bourdichon Hours, early 16th century, French.. MS 18855, f.33

Gradually, during the course of the 14th and 15th centuries, the making of illuminated texts became a specialist business with the production of breviaries, prayer books, psalters and books of hours from workshops across Europe. Stylised and simple motifs of flowers gave way to more naturalistic representations such as the irises seen in the Bourdichon Hours (above) and the almost ‘impressionistic’ iris seen in the Huth Hours (below).

Iris from illuminated page of The Huth Book of Hours. 1485-1490 Flemish. MS 38216, f130v

I haven’t got any irises in my backyard as yet, and I’m still wondering if there would be enough hours of direct sunshine for them to bloom, but, fortunately, halfway down my road I spotted some in the little community plot.

Irises bringing some colour to the raised vegetable beds at the local community plot.

This plot was one of those small, unloved areas which didn’t belong to anyone and has now been turned into a shared space, a community veg plot with a handful of raised beds and some seasonal flowers to brighten the whole affair. A number of local people who live in neighbouring flats or homes without gardens, spend their spare time planting, weeding and harvesting. This attractive project was instigated by one of my neighbours who’s also the Green Party candidate for our ward.

There is something heartening and positive about the continuing existence of a genus of flowers, admired and illustrated, that way we can track through the centuries. It would be nice to think that humans will be around for the next 700 years to enjoy the iris and the rest of the natural world, but that requires the present generation of world leaders to put their own personal ambitions aside, take a longterm view and start to deal with the climate crisis – seriously.

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