Garden Statues and Fountains in Monasteries

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Monasteries with dramatic gardens, adorned with garden statues and water fountains, flourished throughout Europe in the first half of the first millennium, and along with cross, monks carried the plough. Hard work, which had fallen into disfavor, was raised from the dust by the monks. “It was the special glory of St. Benedict [the founder of the order to which St. Augustine belonged] to teach the men of his day that work in the garden, sanctified by prayer, is the best thing a man can do, and this lesson has never been lost sight of since his time, as reflected in the beauty of the garden grounds.”

Within the walls of Benedictine monasteries, therefore, were large gardens with dramatic statuary, water features, and hanging wall fountain gardens cultivated by all the resident monks, often along with smaller ones assigned to the abbot and the chief almoner of the community. Formerly despised by the earliest Christians as symbols of paganism, flowers were now grown to decorate the church. The roses were often grown in large stone garden planters and was held in the highest esteem. At Subiaco is still preserved the roseto, a little rose garden set with a large stone statue of St. Benedict. The rose bushes it contains are said to be the same as those whose beauty delighted his senses, and with whose thorns he was accustomed to mortify his flesh.

The coming of St. Augustine to Canterbury in 597 A.D. was the beginning of a new era in gardens for the British Isles. The civilization, arts, and letters which had fled before the sword of the English conquest in post-Roman times returned with the Christian faith. In England, the revival of horticulture and decorative gardens and the introduction of several new vegetables and fruits was brought about by the Benedictine St. Augustine and his disciples. The flourishing gardens sported water fountains whose design was clearly inspired by the fountains of Italy.

On the continent, monks incorporated fragments of Roman villas into their monasteries, and restored the former gardens, and added garden statuary. But not in England. There, little or no connection existed between classic and convent grounds. And although during the two centuries succeeding the advent of the saint, gardening certainly flourished within the newly founded monasteries. And to this day, their influence remains.

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