As Cleveland comes into bloom this summer, a new exhibition explores how symbols derived from nature—flowers, fruits, animals, trees, and the landscape itself—shaped the meaning of many prints and drawings made before 1600. Love Gardens / Forbidden Fruit features highlights of the CMA’s extraordinary print collection with subjects ranging from the Garden of Eden and courtly love gardens to allegorical tales that take place in the inhospitable wilderness. Renaissance artists based their symbols on biblical, devotional, and classical texts but also increasingly made images from direct observation. Today, we can often identify the exact species of plants and animals featured in many works in the exhibition.
The Garden of Eden, or paradise, was the archetypal landscape for the Renaissance artist, with its layered symbolism of love, virtue, sexuality, and human sin. According to Genesis, it was in Eden that Adam and Eve gave into temptation by eating the forbidden fruit—portrayed variously by artists as an apple, a pear, or a quince—staining their descendants with original sin. Both the tree of knowledge and the tree of life were potent symbols, and animals, too, gained symbolic meaning: for example, the serpent became linked with the devil. Artists, such as Lucas Cranach, added animals associated with human temperaments (personality types) to emphasize how the balance in Eden was to be disrupted after the fall. Cranach also added the coats of arms of his patron, Frederick, Elector of Saxony (1463–1525), as if to suggest his possession of the lands of paradise.
Gardens and their lush contents had additional associations beyond Eden. Devotional literature placed the Virgin Mary in a garden with a variety of herbal and botanical symbols that characterized her virginity, chastity, and fertility. Such symbols could operate in the secular realm as well. The love garden was another conceit of the period, taken from courtly French lyrical (or troubadour) poetry that describes an idyllic realm of music, feasting, and games, where women inspired dedicated service from their admirers. Artists portrayed such realms as virtuous but also as potentially lustful; some ambiguity is present in the Master ES’s rare engraving featuring several couples, a fool, and a traveling musician feasting in a garden.
The antithesis of the garden was the wilderness, another popular theme. In the Renaissance, places removed from civilization and human control held the possibility for dangerous as well as uplifting religious experiences. The wilderness was also a potent metaphor for the journey of human life. Stories, myths, devotional texts, and images evoked a wilderness setting, staging a choice between the easy and difficult paths of life. Albrecht Dürer delved into this territory in his masterful Knight, Death, and the Devil, featuring a knight who resolutely passes through a deep forest—ignoring a devil and the personified Death—in the company of his faithful dog.
In the 1520s, some artists began to make landscape scenes without narrative or other subject matter. The first such “pure” landscapes appeared in Germany, where the rediscovery of the first-century Roman historian Tacitus’s Germania (published in Nuremberg in 1473) inspired reflection on the unique beauty of the northern landscape, particularly its untamed, forested wilderness. Early drawn and etched landscapes by Wolfgang Huber and Albrecht Altdorfer launched a group of artists who made images of the majestic forests of the Danube river valley where they lived.
Etching was especially important to the development of landscapes in Germany and elsewhere: akin to drawing, it captured the spontaneous feeling of nature with a variety of textures, from deeply wooded interiors to distant cities. Indeed, if landscape painting is today associated with vibrant color, it was primarily via black-and-white graphic media that ideas about nature and landscape spread throughout Europe during the Renaissance. Both prints and drawings informed works in other media—paintings, sculpture, and decorative arts—for centuries and provided the foundation for the independent genre of landscape that emerged later.