One of the 24
Gardens from Erstorf.
The cushion is
the gray portion on the bottom.
the silk flowers made today (which for the most part are no longer made with silk) the flowers of long ago were not made by
cutting petal shapes from whole cloth and then arranging them around a central wire used for a stem. Flowers today can look
so realistic that at a distance it is difficult to tell if they are real or not. In the Middle Ages silk flowers were clearly
artificial in nature but they certainly have a beauty of their own. And it would take me several years to figure out exactly
how Medieval flowers were created though it was clear from the pictures that there was no woven fabric involved.
The silk flowers that I have studied were all created between
1480 and 1550. They are all part of reliquaries and reliquary shrines that were popular in the Low Countries
(now known as Belgium, Luxemburg, and the Netherlands roughly) and Northern
Germany at that time. There is no doubt that
silk flowers were used in many other locations and other aspects, from headdresses to table decorations, but these shrines
appear to contain the only surviving examples of silk flowers from the Middle Ages and so are our sole basis for any information
on the actual construction methods used at that time.
There is not much written on these flowers and most of what I have been able to find has been
in reference to the reliquaries rather than the flowers themselves. Even there, they are only covered with any depth in German
texts as the shrines do not seem to have been known outside of the Northern German, Belgium, and Netherlands areas. With
the exception of Appuhn’s description of the Paradise Gardens there is no detailed description of the art flowers to be found.
Who created these historical flowers?
One of the earliest accounts
of the creation of these flowers comes to us from Beissel’s account of medieval wages and labor and refers to the creation
of silk flowers found in the Xanten city records:
The men helped supply the women and girls with something to occupy their time. In 1471 and 1472 the men brought a large
box, silk threads, wire and gold foil for the women to use. The women trimmed out a relic of the holy in these boxes and decorated
them with flowers. In Kalkar not a single one of these flowers of wire, silk and gold remain. In Xanten only insignificant
fragments of flowers still exist. They show evidence of great training and taste. The Xanten building records (bills) prove
that such flowers found place on the altars throughout the Middle Ages.
When the women and girls from Xanten had their flowers ready they then brought the beautiful
ornate Reliquienkästen [relics - bins] to the church, and they would have their payment; because already at that time nothing
happened without such reward. The old factory master gave them wine forth from the vine, and laughingly on his health they
These specific flowers were created starting around 1470 in Belgium (for the most part). The German term for
the flowers is “Klosterarbeiten” a word that means “convent work” and broadly encompasses all the
handicrafts produced in convents. Some forms of Klosterarbeiten, such as bobbin lace, are still practiced and became popular
outside of the convent setting – that does not seem to be the case with the flowers as, even today, they are created
and used in a way to adorn religious artifacts though they are now created in this style using only metallic threads.
The flowers were created by nuns in convents, but to an even greater extent they were created
in cloisters by Beguines. Beguines were much like religious nuns except they did not take vows. They lived in communities and worked, rather than begged,
for their support. The Bequines were very popular in the Low Countries. They originally started in the 1200’s.
In the early 13th century the first Beguine communities, known as Beguinages (from Lat. beginagium)
were formed around grand mistresses, with a small church and often a hospital, but individual houses for each woman rather
than a single large building on the model of a convent. No two communities of Beguines were connected to each other by any
rule or mother house. Some beguine communities included only upper class women, some only the poor, but most were women of
all classes. Numbers varied in different areas but in Ghent the community had several thousand members. Beguines also spread to France (encouraged by Louis IX), Germany and Switzerland.
The beguines were a religious women's movement. Their success, according to the Belgian historian
Henri Pirenne, was due to a surplus of women occasioned by violence, war, military and semi-military operations, which took
the lives of many men. Great numbers of women had no option but to unite and collectively secure the aid of rich benefactors.
Similarly, nuns' convents in the twelfth century enjoyed substantial initial success. Stricter rules within Cistercian and
other abbeys, however, caused many women to seek less strict surroundings. Moreover, these abbeys' initial success necessitated
the refusal of a great many applications for admission. As an additional obstacle, in several cases a certain degree of prosperity
was required as a condition for admission to a regular nunnery.
To understand the general workings of a Beguine cloister one must know just a bit about the region
at the time. Beguine cloisters were popular until the Black Death (which did not affect Belgium nearly as much as the rest of Europe) and the population of Europe dropped dramatically (1347-51). With the blessing of the Pope, Eugenius IV,
the Beguine movement experienced a resurgence about a hundred years later in the mid 1400’s. The European population
started to rebound in about 1470. Because the Beguine’s did not take vows, they could return to the world and marry
if they chose to do so. This made the cloisters of the Beguine a welcome place to women who could not or would not marry,
and who did not wish to devote themselves to a lifetime of religious seclusion. So during times of war, when men were scarce
or away, women could stay at the cloister and return to the world when their husband returned.
Beguines worked for their keep. The Low Countries were the center (particularly in Ypres and Ghent) of production for the English woolen textile industry, more so after Italy switched its production from wool to silk
in the 15th century. Some time later the English started to restrict the export of wool so some of the Beguine
communities changed their focus and engaged in the art of lace making and other handicrafts. The creation of silk flowers
was just one of many assorted handicrafts these women took part in.
Because so many of the existing flowers are located in Mecheln, or are known to have been created
there, it is possible that the flowers emerged from a workshop. The flowers are exactly the same fabrication and give an impression of industrial construction rather than a ‘labor of love’ based on the overall uniformity
of the flowers. Certainly the art industry in general was well promoted under the governorship of Margaret of Austria over
the Netherlands (1507-30). In addition the city of Mecheln was the artistic center for sculptors, gun and bell castors, and later for the creation of alabaster
What purpose did the flowers serve?
In about the year 1480, the convent in Ebstorf created a series of Paradise Gardens to adorn the wall that separated the choir from the congregation in the convent.
These cushions were used by the novices to kneel upon when they took their vows to become nuns and they contained a great
number of relics. The flowers that adorned the 24 cushions that lined the wall all came from the city of Mecheln. The cushions were fastened to the wall
and topped with a lattice so that the appearance was more of a garden wall and was in many ways suppose to represent the heavenly
reward –hence the name Paradise
The Ebstorf cloister chronicle from the year 1487 describes them, stating: “The relic shrines
are arranged like a wall, skillfully and with a graceful lattice with crown [probably canopy]” and was used “therewith
the novices, before the cloister community, the Novitiates and the Professed, were then taken and were consecrated as brides
In the neighboring Benedictory convent located in Walsrode stand two shrines, nearly identical
to each other. They are neither Paradise Gardens nor “Bestolen Hofjes”. In the
shrines stand wood figures of the risen Christ and the unbelieving Thomas, below and on the sides are bushes of art flowers
and directly over the garden scene is a checker board of star blossoms and relics encased in copper boxes, 27 of each. The
flowers are worked in the same manner as those found in Ebstorf and serve as a reliquary though in this case the relics are
not interspersed with the flowers.
The Beguines had a similar type of shrine, for they too needed a focus for their meditative prayers.
What better way to meditate in the glories of the afterlife (Paradise) than to stare it in the face? The cabinets, enclosed gardens, called ‘Besloten Hofjes’
in Dutch were the perfect thing to meditate upon. In Mecheln, in the former Beginenhof, stand seven such shrines, in the Beginenhof
of Herentals is yet another, as well as one each in the churches of Baelen-Neet, Saint Leonard, and Gheel and in the Lower
Rhine in Kalkar.
The identification of the “Besloten Hofjes” with the hortus conclusus, a locked garden,
is the symbol of the virginity of the Blessed Mary. The cabinets were meant as a moral demand to guard ones’ virginity
and a correlation between the locked garden and the rewards of heaven was apparent.
Almost all of the cabinets follow the same basic construction rules. Each has two doors in order to close the cabinet.
These doors are frequently painted with portraits of the donor or some religious figure. The cabinets have the feel of a garden,
with a small picket fence up front and a locked gate in the center. There are statues of the divine, the Virgin and prominent
saints, and small pieces of parchment on which are written the names of saints and other revered (in a religious sense) persons.
And, of course, many different flowers and remains (relics) – usually small pieces of bone but could also be hair, holy
The flowers were popular from the time of the Catholic reforms of 1470 until the Lutheran Reformation (which reached the area in 1528). While the flowers on the Ebstorf cushions are the earliest
surviving, the cabinets date from 1490 to roughly 1530, with the majority of them dated to the early years of the 1500's.
The art form lived on through the 18th century but never again reached the same level of popularity. For whatever
reason though, it is clear that the Church was becoming more accepting of decoration in general and was willing to accept
artificial flowers. The Lutheran Reforms, on the other hand, made decoration of any sort unacceptable and so it becomes obvious
that dwindling production is directly related to the spread of Lutheranism in the area.
What were the flowers made of?
By most accounts the flowers were always created with silk
and no other fiber. Fine linen is mentioned in one account dating to the 1630’s but in no other case is there evidence
of other fibers being substituted for silk. Since the surviving flowers are all a part of church artifacts, and silk was used in abundance when it came to creating altar
clothes and other items for the church as it was considered to be the finest material, it is possible that flowers for other
uses were created with other fibers but I find it unlikely that it was ever a common practice.
Appuhn describes the Ebstorf gardens thusly:
The element of the art flowers is copper wire in different strengths. Each leaf and each blossom
contains a compressed wire loop. It compresses yield two parchment bits apiece, cut, folded outward, and forming the outline
of each leaflet. Both halves of the leaf are individually wrapped up with colored silk. Each leaflet has a slit down the middle
in the place of the rib. Therefore the halves of the leaves can carry different colors, quartered to appear as a crest. Other
round leaves have spiraling loops of turned wire that one freely covered with loose colored silk threads. Here the green color
of the wire shows. The handles on which the branches were fastened were left bare and originally were naturally bright. The
thick turned silk threads were in the colors light yellow, dark yellow, orange, red, pink, purple, light green, turquoise,
and blue. Altogether ten tones in addition to the silver threads at the acorns. In the leaves one can find single coral and
between the leaves are small bezants pressed out of silver in the form of book leaflet. The flowers appear to float over a
foil of gilded copper.
The colors on the Paradise Gardens were far brighter than those
found in the cabinets because the former were very little exposed to light over the years. Some of the relic packets, also
of silk, on the gardens were dated as 13th century Spain, later half of the 14th century, 15th century
Spain, and 15th century Italy. (The packet coverings imply that the relics
were collected from many places and were of different ages.)
An in-depth analysis of the flowers in the cabinets is not yet to be found and
for materials and construction descriptions I am at the mercy of the photos I have collected.
The flowers, all of which have specific meanings of their own, most represented
include lily, stern roses and narcissus though the colors and leaf shapes are frequently not represented as natural. Among
the vast number of flower varieties can also be found strawberries, rosebuds, acorns and oak leaves.
The Process of recreating these flowers
My first encounter with these flowers came in the form of
a picture of the Paradise Gardens that I first saw in 1999 but it wasn’t until three years
later that I felt I was up to the challenge of duplicating the flowers based on the pictures alone. Once I started though
I was swept up in the adventure.
I started the process by comparing the pictures of the Gardens
to modern versions of artificial flowers. A similar art form, called Ganutel, exists in modern Malta and has a long history but it is visually very different from these flowers despite the
fact that the materials used are the same. Modern Klosterarbeiten looks very similar but is created entirely from metal threads,
but at the time I could find no instruction as to how they were made.
What I knew was the flowers were created from wire and thread.
This fact was clear from the pictures I had and so that was where I started. I collected together some embroidery floss and
wire and tried first bending the wire into a petal shape and wrapping it with the floss. I just couldn’t get the floss
to stay on the wire and I was having the added difficulty of trying to keep the wire in the desired shape. Further examination
of the photos convinced me to purchase a large quantity of bullion wire (wire that looks like a Slinky). I found if I covered
the petal wire with tightly coiled bullion wire I could effectively get the floss to adhere to the wire but I still could
not get the petal to hold its shape. From the pictures I could see that each petal had a slit down the middle and each half
appeared to be stuffed with cotton batting. After much experimentation I discovered that if I created each half of the petal
from a separate wire and then bent them to hinge at the tip of the petal I could get them to hold their shape and stay looking
the same way they did as I wrapped the floss around them. I skipped the “cotton batting” since the flowers didn’t
really seem to need it. The end result was a flower that looked almost exactly like the ones on the Paradise Gardens.
Wanting to learn more of these flowers I wrote to the museum
in Mecheln to inquire about their collection of these flowers because the written description of the Paradise Gardens said the collection of these art flowers was especially fine in Mecheln.
It took better than a month to receive a reply but it was worth the wait! The curator sent me nine separate pictures of one
of their shires which they had recently had to open (from behind the glass) for some other purpose – so while they were
in there he took some pictures for me.
In-depth study of these new-found pictures threw all of my
previous work right into the trash. Based on the new photos I discovered that my first replicas were entirely too large in
comparison to the actual flowers. Attempts to miniaturize my flowers using the same technique were hopeless. I needed to start
over from scratch. After questioning the curator further I was unable to determine exactly how large the flowers should be
although I was told they were closer to 2-3 centimeters each (which I assumed meant each petal) and they knew nothing what-so-ever
of the particulars of the construction.
At approximately the same time I came across the pictures
of the Shrines in Walsrode and Harline’s book which showed a picture of the complete shrine that I had recently received detailed pictures of.
Several months later I found pictures of even more shrines on the Belgium historical preservation website (KIK-IRPA) where they also listed the materials used in making the flowers.
From my museum photos
I was better able to determine the construction of the flowers. Not only were these pictures far more detailed than the ones
of the Paradise Gardens, they also contained far more flower varieties.
I choose to start with
a flower that was clearly made with bullion, wire and thread. The base of the flower was easy enough to create. The flowers
from Malta have a style that is nearly identical and with those instructions I knew to cut a small piece of bullion, run a wire
down the center of it, twist into the petal shape and then wrap the threads so that they fell between the grooves in the bullion.
The extra decoration, created from what appears to be tightly coiled, fine grade wire, was a bit more of a challenge. Easy
enough to figure out that it was coiled wire – the difficult part was attempting to coil the wire so it was smooth and
consistent in its finished state. I discovered that coiling the wire back over
itself allowed me to pull the coils tight and did not leave a loose end that could potentially snag on something. Coiling
the longer pieces over a slightly heavier wire makes larger coils but if I left the wire in the coils it made the whole length
of it stronger and thereby it was easier to get it to hold its shape in the end. I became very adept at coiling wire.