The Symbol-Strewn Landscape: Esoteric and Initiatic Symbolism in European Gardens in the 18th and 19th Century

Christopher McIntosh – Germany

[This essay was first published in Masonic and Esoteric Heritage: New Perspectives for Art and Heritage Policies. Proceedings of the First International Conference of the OVN, Foundation for the Advancement of Academic Research into the History of Freemasonry in the Netherlands, October 20-21, 2005. Ed. A. Kroon, M. Bax, J. Snoek. The Hague, Netherlands: OVN Foundation, 2005. It is reproduced here in a revised form.]

Dr. Christopher McIntosh is an independent historian and author on history, mythology and western esotericism. This paper is based on his book Gardens of the Gods: Myth, Magic and Meaning, (I. B. Tauris) London 2005. Currently he teaches in the distance MA programme at the Centre for the Study of Esotericism, Exeter University, England. He lives in Bremen, Germany.

In the conservation of a garden with symbolic or iconographic elements there are special challenges involved. The first problem to be faced is general ignorance. The notion of a garden with an esoteric or initiatic message is one that many people find hard to understand. So, for conservationists, one of the first tasks is to create awareness that such gardens exist and explain how they convey their message. Such awareness is important for three reasons. It is important, first of all, in order to ensure that the owners of such gardens realise the significance of what they possess. Secondly it is important for gaining funding and official support for restoration or conservation work. Thirdly it is important in order to make sure that the work is carried out in a way that is sensitive to the intention that lies behind the garden. 

In this paper, which I hope will help to further such awareness, I would like to begin by discussing the visual language of gardens, its basic components and how it can be used to convey a message. I will then go on to describe some examples of the use of this language in different periods and cultures. Finally I will focus on European gardens of the past two or three centuries which could be called initiatic - that is to say, laid out so as to create an initiatic itinerary - and this will include some that contain specifically masonic symbology. As I shall argue, the motif of the initiatic journey is one that can be traced back to the Renaissance and was taken up by masonically-inspired garden designers.

The visual language of gardens

Dealing first with the language of gardens, there is of course an infinite number of languages, varying widely from one culture to another, but when we examine the structure of these languages we find that they all have three basic elements.

First there is the element of form and shape: whether, for example, the space is symmetrical or asymmetrical, whether it is composed of straight lines or curves or a combination of the two, how it is aligned to the compass points, and so on - all of these things can be given a symbolic significance. The second element of the language consists of the objects and features that exist in the garden - landscape features such as hills, rivers, ponds, caves; and man-made objects such as fountains, statues, labyrinths, pavilions and gazebos. The third element of the language relates to the plants in the garden and the meanings they are given. This is of course an endless subject. The meaning is sometimes determined by the colour, sometimes by the shape, sometimes by the role it has played in mythology or religion.

All of these three components of the language of gardens are affected by region- and culture-specific factors. At the same time there are arguably certain motifs that are universal. Some people would see these as examples of what C. G. Jung calls 'archetypes', symbols that are common to all of humanity and stored in the collective unconscious. One example is the motif of the centre, the idea that when one marks the centre of a sacred space one is symbolically marking the centre of the world, the axis mundi. This notion exists in many traditions, and hence one often finds the centre of a garden or piece of land marked by a stone, a mound, a fountain or a tree. All of these features are also in themselves universal motifs. Stones, for example, have been revered in many cultures and many forms, from the Omphalos at Delphi to the immortal rocks of Chinese and Japanese gardens. Another example of a universal garden motif is that of the entrance or threshold. Again, in many cultures entrances to gardens are treated in a special way, namely as the boundary between the everyday world and the rarefied world of the garden. Entrances are transitional, hybrid features, and therefore are often guarded by hybrid creatures such as sphinxes, gryphons and satyrs.

Sacred and symbolic gardens

I would now like to look briefly at some sacred and symbolic gardening traditions in different regions and cultures, starting with China, which has one of the oldest gardening traditions in the world. One of the ideas that influenced Chinese gardens was the belief in what they called the Immortals. This was a group of semi-human, semi-divine beings who possessed the secret of eternal life and who lived in some inaccessible Shangri-La located, depending on different accounts, either high up in the Himalayas or in caverns under the earth or on a group of distant islands in the eastern sea, which always melted away when they were approached. The idea behind many Chinese gardens was to recreate or mirror this paradisiacal land of the Immortals. Another tradition that influenced Chinese gardens was geomancy or feng shui, as the Chinese call it (meaning literally 'wind and water'), the belief that the configuration of a landscape or garden can affect events in the life of the owner. A related tradition was the religion of Taoism, with its belief in a universal force called the ch'i, which has a feminine and a masculine form, yin and yang, which have to be balanced in the landscape so that the ch 'i can flow properly.

One of the commonest features in Chinese gardens is the so-called 'moon gate', a circular entrance cut into a wall. This is a good example of the special treatment given to entrances, which I mentioned earlier. The circle is a symbol of heaven and of perfection, so that when one passes through the gate it becomes a ceremonial act - one is passing through into a different world. In modern China, if one asks about the significance of the moon gate one is likely to be told that it is designed in that way so that only one person can pass through at a time, but I find this explanation unconvincing, and it strikes me as being an example of how, through secularisation, people can lose their understanding of symbols. So it is not only in Europe that information work needs to be done in the area of garden symbology.

Moving on to Japan, we find that the Japanese gardeners took many influences from China, such as feng shui and Taoism, but they adapted them and added their own influences, such as Shinto and Zen Buddhism, and developed a gardening style that has its own very special qualities. As with Chinese gardens, there is an avoidance of symmetry and straight lines, and also of bright colours - the Japanese prefer to get their visual effects with subtle shades of green and above all with form and texture. When one looks, for example, at the garden of one of the Zen Buddhist monasteries in Kyoto the whole effect seems very natural, almost as though it had been left as nature created it, but in fact this is deceptive. Everything has been very carefully placed, right down to the smallest rock, and everything is very carefully and continuously tended. Like their Chinese counterparts, the Japanese gardeners were at pains to balance male and female elements in the garden. In the Japanese religion, Shinto, as in Taoism, everything in nature is either male or female. So, for example, sharp, vertical stones are male, while round ones are female, and there was always an attempt to keep a balance between the two. A special form of Japanese gardening is the sand garden, which also belongs to Zen Buddhism. A particularly famous example is to be found at the Ryoan-ji monastery in Kyoto. This is what one might call a minimalist approach to gardening. It consists basically just of an expanse of carefully raked gravel with a few carefully placed rocks. These gardens are intended for meditation, and they have a wonderfully tranquil quality.

A very different type of gardening tradition arose in the Muslim world, where the garden was considered as an image and a foretaste of paradise. In fact this tradition of the paradise garden originated some 5,000 years ago in Mesopotamia, and in the early writings of that region, such as the Epic of Gilgamesh, paradise is characterised as having certain specific features, such as four rivers flowing out of a central fountain, which in the Koran are described as consisting of water, wine, milk and honey. In some descriptions the centre of paradise is marked by a hill, corresponding to the tradition of the axis mundi. The notion of paradise as a garden and the features that went with it, such as the four rivers, came to be reflected wherever the Islamic style of gardening took root - from Muslim Spain to the India of the Mughal emperors. Linked with this notion was the practice of placing a tomb in a garden, so that the remains of the deceased could repose in an environment that corresponded to his heavenly abode. A striking example is the Taj Mahal, built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan as a tomb for himself and his wife, and set in a paradise garden with complex layers of symbology.

European garden history

Looking at the history of European horticulture, we know that the ancient Greeks and Romans had gardens. The philosopher Epicurus had a famous garden in Athens, the Emperor Hadrian had one at his villa at Tivoli, the remains of which can still be seen today. But after the collapse of the Roman empire very little was heard or written about gardens for several hundred years. Then a medieval tradition of gardening developed in the monasteries and in the walled enclosures of castles. These were partly practical places, where vegetables and herbs were cultivated for cooking as well as for medicinal purposes, but there was also much Christian symbolism attached to gardens and plants. There is a passage in the Song of Solomon, which says 'a garden enclosed is my sister, my spouse; a spring shut up, a fountain sealed', and this came to be associated with the Virgin Mary, so that in medieval manuscripts it is quite common to see Mary depicted in a garden surrounded by a high wall. The symbolism of flowers was also developed in the Middle Ages. The lily was a symbol of the Virgin, and the red rose symbolised the blood of Christ. But the imagery of gardens in medieval art and literature was also associated with traditions that to some extent ran counter to the prevailing Christian orthodoxy - for example the tradition of courtly love, where in the troubadour poems love scenes often take place in the sensual surroundings of a garden. The alchemical tradition is another example. Many alchemical illustrations show male and female alchemists carrying out their work of transmutation in garden settings filled with alchemical symbols.

One almost gets the impression that in the surroundings of a garden people felt they had a license to do things that were not permitted elsewhere. And this perhaps goes some way to explaining what strikes me as a paradox about European gardens, especially from the Renaissance onwards. Whereas the gardens of the Far East and the Islamic world are closely connected with the religions of those regions, the great European gardens of the Renaissance and later periods have a distinctly pagan quality. Even in, say, the park of Versailles, created for the ultra-Catholic monarch Louis XIV, one sees an abundance of pagan deities, surrounding the figure of the Sun God Apollo.

Like much else in the Renaissance, the gardens of the period drew their inspiration from classical antiquity. And here we see a number of different influences coming together. There were the writings of classical authors such as Pliny the Younger, who wrote, for example, about the use of topiary and how a garden should be laid out on a slope so as to afford an open view over the surrounding country - and these ideas were taken up by Renaissance writers on garden design such as the 15th-century architect Alberti, and they became very typical of Renaissance gardens. Then, for their mythological themes the Renaissance gardeners could draw on various works, for example Homer's Odyssey, Virgil's Aeneid, and especially Ovid's Metamorphoses, which relates a series of myths concerning the theme of transformation. But it was not only the world of Greece and Rome that inspired the Renaissance garden design, but also ancient Egypt, which was coming to exert a fascination for many people of the age. This fascination exerted by ancient Egypt was to continue right up to modern times, and is reflected also in Freemasonry and in masonically inspired gardens, as we shall see shortly.

The initiatic journey

Thus the Renaissance garden designers had a very rich store of imagery to draw on, and they assumed that the visitor to the garden would be familiar with it. Their gardens were often laid out so as to lead the visitor on from one image and one experience to another, so that going through the garden became an initiatic experience.
A very important work that inspired the use of gardens in this way was a book called the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili or Dream of Poliphilus, probably written by a Dominican monk called Francesco Colonna and first published in 1499 by the famous Venetian publishing house of Aldus Manutius. It is illustrated with a series of wonderful engravings, and has been called one of the most beautiful books ever printed. The story told in the book is an allegorical love story, which is a celebration of the feminine principle and of a refined form of erotic love. The narrator, Poliphilus (meaning 'lover of Polia'), describes how he falls asleep and in his dream goes in search of his loved one, passing through a forest and then through various elaborately described gardens and architectural settings, meeting on the way a dragon and various nymphs, goddesses and mythological beings, until he is finally united with Polia. In other words what is described here is an initiatic journey. And some of the illustrations of the places that Poliphilus passes through on his journey - showing ruined classical buildings, fallen columns, obelisks and so on - are strikingly similar to the symbolic landscapes that later appear in masonic illustrations.

The illustrations in the Hypnerotomachia had an influence on the design of Renaissance gardens, but to enter into this theme would be beyond the scope of this paper. I shall therefore move directly to England and to the wonderful 18th-century landscape garden at Stourhead in Wiltshire. Here again we find the themes of the initiatic journey and the symbol strewn landscape. Its creator, Henry Hoare, based the garden not on Ovid's Metamorphoses, but on Virgil's Aeneid, which tells the story of the Trojan hero Aeneas, who, after the fall of Troy, made a long voyage around the Mediterranean and finally landed in Italy where he became the founder of Rome. Aeneas's journey, with its difficulties and its moments of despair, hope and revelation, is reproduced allegorically in the garden through a series of temples, grottoes, tunnels, bridges and other features, all grouped around an artificial lake.

Masonic and esoteric symbolism in garden architecture

By this time many landowners and garden builders were freemasons. So the question arises: are there connections between Freemasonry and garden design? Undoubtedly the answer is yes, but the picture is complex. A man could be a freemason or interested in masonic themes and at the same time have a related broader interest in Egyptian architecture, classical mythology, the ancient mysteries and similar areas. Often it is difficult to separate specifically masonic motifs from these more general themes. Rarely do we find an attempt to create an actual masonic lodge room in a garden - understandably so, since it would be difficult to achieve the necessary privacy in an open-air setting. What we do find, however, are gardens with symbolic motifs that reflect or inter-relate with the masonic world view. I call these 'symbol-strewn landscapes', and I would argue that one of the visual sources for them could have been the pictures that one often finds on masonic diplomas and aprons as well as in books on Freemasonry (fig. 1).


Fig. 1. Drawing after a design on a 19th century Masonic apron

What are some of the themes that we find in these landscapes? I have already mentioned the initiatic journey. Another theme - indeed a central one - in Freemasonry is the idea of architecture and building as a metaphor for the inner work of moral development undertaken by the free-mason. This goes together with the idea of a search for the lost ancient wisdom that was reflected in the architecture of classical antiquity, of ancient Egypt and of the vanished Temple of Solomon. Typically, the masonic pictures that I have mentioned show in the foreground the two symbolic pillars of Freemasonry, flanking the entrance to a temple. Frequently in the background are shown Egyptian features - pyramids, obelisks, sphinxes, date palms and sometimes elements of classical architecture. And often there are other objects in the picture: broken columns, squares and compasses, beehives and allegorical creatures such as serpents, lions and pelicans.

Looking at further examples of 'symbol-strewn' landscapes, one that should be mentioned is the park at Wörlitz in Sachsen-Anhalt, in the former German Democratic Republic, built in the latter part of the 18th century by Prince Friedrich Franz von Anhalt-Dessau around a watery area formed by a salient of the river Elbe. The Prince had spent a great deal of time in England and may very well have been initiated there as a mason although we do not know for sure. But certainly the whole garden is unmistakeably initiatic. It has, for example, a labyrinth, which leads through rocky passages that warn the visitor: 'Choose your way with reason' or 'Here the choice becomes difficult but decisive' (fig. 2).

Fig. 2. Labyrinth at Wörlitz, Germany

One of the most striking buildings in the park is the Temple of Venus, which is built on a small hill over two grottoes, one dedicated to earth and fire, the other to water and air. You enter the grottoes through an entrance at the base of the hill, then you progress symbolically through the elements, finishing with the air element, ruled by Aeolos, the God of the Winds. As one emerged into the open air from the grotto of Aeolos one was supposed to hear the sound of an aeolian harp. Unfortunately there is no aeolian harp today, but if there was one it must have been a marvellous experience to hear it as one came out of the grotto.

Prince Franz was in friendly contact with the poet Goethe, who lived not far away at Weimar and collaborated with his patron Duke Carl August of Weimar in creating a park along the river Ilm. Goethe is well known to have been a Freemason, and this may account for some of the features that are found in the park, such as a sphinx reclining in a grotto, and a snake curled around a stone pillar. However, when one goes to Weimar today there is not much information available on these symbols or their meaning.
Belonging to approximately the same era is the New Garden at Potsdam, built by the Rosicrucian King Frederick William II of Prussia in the latter part of the 18th century (fig. 3).

Fig. 3. Pyramid in the New garden, Potsdam

Here the masonic and Rosicrucian influence is unmistakeable. There is an orangery built to look like an Egyptian temple, and an ice house in the form of a pyramid with alchemical symbols over the doorway. At one time, however, there were many more such esoteric features, such as a hermitage with a ceiling fresco showing images of the planets. Again, it is frustratingly difficult to find out anything about the overall symbolic conception of the garden.

Another German example is the park at Louisenlund in Schleswig-Holstein, built in the 18th century by the Landgrave Carl von Hessen-Kassel and now the property of a private school. The Landgrave was a prominent Freemason, active in numerous exotic rites and head of an order called the Asiatic Brethren, which incorporated Rosicrucian and alchemical elements.

He is also famous for having harboured the mysterious alchemist; the Comte de Saint-Germain at the end of the latter's life. The park that he laid out was a striking example of a landscape crammed with symbolic features. Apart from an Alchemist's Tower, where masonic rituals were conducted, there was an initiatic itinerary that involved the candidate passing through a dense wood, finding his way through a labyrinth, and encountering various allegorical images such as a figure of a hermit. There was also a pond with a secret grotto concealed behind a waterfall, in which the most solemn rituals were held. Over the years most of the symbolic features have disappeared. All that remains of the Alchemist's Tower, for example, is an Egyptian stone doorway, which was moved to a different position and cemented into the wall of a stable building, where it stands completely out of context. Louisenlund is, in fact, a good example of how such gardens should not be treated. Had the right conservation work been carried out in time, Carl von Hessen's park might still remain today as one of the most remarkable examples of its kind.

Another masonic garden that has lost most of its original character is the Giardino Torrigiani in Florence, which is now part of a private residential complex (fig. 4).

Fig. 4. Torrigiani Garden, Florence

It was created in the early 19th century by the Marquess Pietro Torrigiani and his architect Luigi Cambray Digny, both of whom were Freemasons. It incorporated an initiatic route, winding its way past allegorical features such as a statue of Osiris, a sepulchre and a colossal statue of Saturn. The journey ended at a neo-Gothic tower built on a high point of the garden. Today one of the few features that remain is the statue of Osiris, which stands rather forlornly in a niche of foliage close to the entrance. Again, one can only feel regret that this evidently remarkable garden was not better preserved.

Modern gardens with esoteric symbolism

Finally, I would like to make the point that the tradition of creating symbolic and initiatic gardens has not died out. On the contrary, there are many modern gardens in various parts of the world that have been created as places of symbolic meaning. One example is Little Sparta in Lanarkshire, Scotland, created by the poet and artist Ian Hamilton Finlay on what used to be a farm, over a period from the late 1960s to the present. He took the classical and Renaissance tradition of garden imagery and adapted it to his own particular style and world view. Finlay was a man with a very strong message, who believed essentially that the values of western civilisation are under threat from what he called the 'secular terror' of modern society, and he saw the garden of Little Sparta as a kind of symbolic fortress or battleship against the forces of the secular terror and in defence of the classical values that he upheld. Consequently there is much warlike imagery in the garden, combined with images from classical mythology and also motifs from the French Revolution, of which Finlay is a great admirer. The presiding deity of the garden is Apollo, who is also identified with the French revolutionary Antoine de St. Just.

Another modern example is the Tarot Garden, located near the near the town of Capalbio in southern Tuscany, created by the late French sculptress Niki de Saint Phalle. What enabled her to finance it were the royalties that she received for designing a bottle top for a famous perfume company. The garden, as the name implies, is filled with figures of the Tarot trumps, created in her inimitable style, some of them as big as houses (one of them she lived in). All of them are in brilliant colours with rich mosaics of tile and reflecting glass. They are clearly influenced by the Spanish architect Antonio Gaudi, whose Park Guell in Barcelona was what originally inspired her to create the garden.

The kind of gardening tradition that I have been describing is therefore by no means a thing of the past, and those who today have the resources to conserve and restore such gardens might also consider the possibility of creating one. Meanwhile a great deal more research, information and public relations work needs to be carried out in order to ensure that gardens of the kind I have described are understood, valued and sensitively cared for.

Curl 1991 Curl, James Stevens, The Art and Architecture of Freemasonry (Batsford) London 1991.
Decker-Hauff 1994 Decker-Hauff, Hansmartin, Gärten und Schicksale, (Deutscher Taschenbuchverlag) Munich 1994.
Godwin 1999 Godwin, Joscelyn (trans.), The Dream of Poliphilus (Thames & Hudson) London/New York 1999.
Godwin 2002 Godwin, Joscelyn, The Pagan Dream of the Renaissance, (Thames & Hudson ) London 2002.
McIntosh 2005 McIntosh, Christopher, Gardens of the Gods: Myth, Magic and Meaning, (I. B. Tauris) London 2005.

All photographs in this article were taken by the author and reproduced with his kind permission.
Theosophy Forward readers who are interested in sacred and symbolic gardens may contact the Ozgard Network.
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