Constanze Kirchner

Upper-Rhenish Master. Paradiesgärtlein (The Little Garden of Paradise). 1410-1420. Mixed media on oak wood. 26,2 x 33,4 cm. Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt am Main. © Wiki Commons Inc.

Grace in tough times


Painted in miniature on an oak panel, the Paradiesgärtlein (literally "little garden of paradise") represents the epitome of a tranquil garden offering safety and security within a fortified wall crowned by battlements. The wall frames the garden – representing the paradise – as a mythological place of happiness, where pretty young figures move gracefully and elegantly amidst lush and multicoloured flowering plants.


You have to get very close to discover the variety of details in the small devotional picture. This creates a truly intimate situation that takes the viewer into the picture and touches them sensually. Golden locks of hair flow into the stylised vegetation, colourful birds line the wall, nevertheless, a small dragon and a little devil appear in the almost ornamental greenery. The fine, highly idealised painting fascinates with a condensed atmosphere, overwhelms with the charm of the figures and impresses with attractive fruits and wonderful blossoms. The garden shines in unearthly light – there are no shadows. Enraptured and hardly tangible, the work conveys heavenly eternity. The Upper Rhine Master has succeeded not only in depicting an elusive paradise far removed from earthly experience in this small devotional work, but also in making the heavenly concept of the afterlife emotionally palpable.

  • Constanze Kirchner
    Constanze Kirchner

    The motif Paradiesgärtlein originates from Christian imagery. It was painted many times in the 15th century, especially in Italy and along the Rhine. The enchanting devotional picture shows Our Lady enthroned on a bright red cushion in the middle of the garden, tall, in a radiant blue robe, as the figure dominating the picture. Her head is bowed and she is reading a book. A crown with leaves distinguishes her as the Queen of Heaven.


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    The Christ Child is playing at her feet. The other female figures in the left half of the picture are also to be understood as Holy Virgins because of their splendid clothing. A clear assignment of these saints is uncertain (Keazor 2001, p. 231 ff.). St. Barbara is probably drawing water with a golden spoon from the (life) well in the foreground on the left, because legend attributes to her miraculous powers in overcoming a period of drought. And it could be St. Dorothea who picks cherries from the (life) tree and puts them into the basket, although – according to the legend – the cherries are handed to her (ibid.). The figure holding the plucked instrument (psaltery) to the infant Jesus is interpreted as St Catherine of Alexandria or St Agnes. She is distinguished by a golden diadem with floral decoration and by her flowing hair (ibid.).


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    The group of figures on the right consists of the pensive Archangel Michael, also crowned with a golden plant, and – facing him – St. George in chain mail, next to whom lies a small dead dragon. A third figure, probably St. Oswald, bends down to both of them, as a raven peeps out from behind his knee (ibid., p. 233). He is holding on to the tree of knowledge. Saint George has of course already conquered the dragon, which stands for evil, and looks expectantly at Mary. Under another tree sits a frightened monkey with the distinct features of the devil.


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    According to biblical legend, he is held in check by the Archangel Michael, the fighter against evil and guardian of paradise. The apples mentioned in the creation story, which tempted to sin, lie ready on the hexagonal, bright white stone table. Wine and bread refer to the Last Supper. The table is compositionally remarkable, dividing the male group of figures from Mary.


    Both paradise and the garden stand for a protected, enclosed and bounded place that provides food and water as well as peace and quiet. In the garden, flowers, herbs, fruits and grasses blossom and grow, spanning a supra-temporal, idealising arc from spring (lily of the valley) to midsummer (roses). Especially the white-flowered plants, such as the lilies, stand for the purity of Mary. Just like the plants, twelve birds of different species are depicted in detail and realistically - and thus identifiable (Brinkmann/ Kemperdick 2002, p. 93).


    Compositionally, the colour scheme dominates the picture: the secular blue sky frames the graceful Mary leaning towards the book, whose blue robe corresponds with the blue clothing of St Barbara and that of the archangel. The white garments of the saintly figures, the wall in white tones and the light-coloured table enclose the baby Jesus, also dressed in white, in their midst. At the same time, the bright red of the virgins' robes, the red of Mary's book, her seat cushion, St. George's sleeves, the blossoms and fruits reinforce the clear composition, which is additionally underlined by the complementary green of the plants and once again places Mary at the centre of the picture's action. The spatial effect is essentially determined by groupings and overlaps of the figures and pictorial objects; there are no shadows in the heavenly world.


    The figures appear relaxed, peaceful and serene, the colourfulness and the abundance of vegetation with springing water embody serenity and earthly happiness. The Holy Virgins are engaged in an occupation that does not cause any trouble. The clothing and hair ornaments are reminiscent of courtly life in a well-tended castle garden. This is also indicated by the killed animals, which are not usually part of the heavenly world, as well as a tree of knowledge that does not bear fruit. This combination of the divine world as a heavenly paradise with the impression of earthly reality characterises the picture to a great extent and thus lends it a peculiar mood, explosiveness and tension in its contemplativeness.


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    There are numerous studies on the painting technique, the use of colour, the symbolism, the identification, function and activities of the saints, the plants and animals. Also research has been done on provenance in the monastic context or on the attribution of the picture type as ‘hortus conclusus’ (closed garden as a symbol of Mary's virginity). ‘Hortus conclusus’ is often alluded to in paintings of Mary - a garden with an enclosure and with certain plants that refer to Mary (lily, rose, but also lily of the valley or strawberries) - as can also be seen in the Paradiesgärtlein. At the same time, however, the Paradiesgärtlein evokes associations with the gardens of pleasure and love, as found, for example, in engravings by the Master of the Gardens of Love in the mid-15th century (http://bildersammlung-prehn.de/de/node/946, 06.03.2019) - and in this ambivalence once again clearly emphasises the link between divine and earthly worlds of life.


    What does the Paradiesgärtlein mean?

    The Paradiesgärtlein defies a clear interpretation. The duality of good and bad is hinted at, but the victory of good in paradise over evil or sin – represented by the dead dragon and the vanquished devil – is clearly emphasised. However, the ideal state in paradise is not unbroken: With their tilted heads, the figures in the painting appear pensive, as if they know that there is a life of tormenting reality outside their shelter. The garden as a retreat from the dangerous outside world protects, where in everyday life there is oppression, fear of hunger or sudden death. With the devotional image, religion offers comfort in the promise of salvation to a paradisiacal existence in which the threatening is banished. The imponderable reality is countered by the protective enclosure of the massive wall – outside, the world is full of danger.


    The devotional image builds a bridge from this world to the hereafter and vice versa. It opens up a view into eternity and thus into a transcendental space of experience that lies outside finite everyday experience. Visual means are used to create access to the divine, an access that at the same time recalls one's own experience of the world and yet enables the imaginative experience of transcendence.

    As an anthropological constant, the idea of a transcendent reality, which usually characterises life after death, runs through many cultures. Experiences of transcendence are described in many ways and often refer to extrasensory perceptions and supernatural forces to which the respective belief is tied.


    Why is the painting interesting for art education?

    Transcendence and spirituality are often at the core of cultural traditions - in this case Christian heritage. It could be exciting to enter into a conversation about this and to draw on examples of non-European cultural testimonies of faith from the 15th century. In this way, world history can be opened up and a Eurocentric perspective on the history of Western art can be expanded. (As the epitome of European beliefs about the Garden of Eden, the work also stands at the end of the medieval conception of nature and art.)


    The image announces divine truth: In paradise, the world is in order. Outside the garden, man lives in untamed nature and is exposed to all incalculable events. With its religious context of origin, the painting's function is primarily to depict an otherworldly, divine order that illustrates the promise of salvation after death in contrast to the earthly hardships of the late Middle Ages. But the pictorial interweaving of earthly and heavenly life already points beyond the late medieval conception of the image. The shielded divine world view experiences ruptures, opening and change.


    Not only can the work paradigmatically explain the end of the Middle Ages and the development of art history. Furthermore, the it invites discovery: plants can be identified, animals and groups of figures with their actions tell stories that can be researched, re-enacted, developed further and transformed into the present day. And last but not least, the linking of divine and earthly reality allows analogies to virtual and real, individual and global worlds of life.



    • Brinkmann, Bodo/ Kemperdick, Stephan (eds.): Das Paradiesgärtlein. In: German Paintings in the Städel: 1300 - 1500, Catalogues of the Paintings in the Städel Art Institute. Frankfurt am Main/ Mainz 2002, pp. 93 -120
    • Leaflet of the Städelsches Kunstinstitut on the work: "Das Paradiesgärtlein", c. 1410-1420. Upper Rhenish Master, mixed media on oak, 26.2 x 33.4 cm. Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt am Main o.J., o.S.
    • Historisches Museum Frankfurt am Main, Prehn'sches Kabinett. http://bildersammlung-prehn.de/de/node/946 (06.03.2019)
    • Keazor, Henry: "Manu et voce". Iconographic Notes on the Frankfurt Paradise Garden. Original publication in: Bergdolt, Klaus/ Bonsanti, Giorgio (eds.): Opere e giorni: studisu mille anni d'arte europea dedicati a Max Seidel, Venezia 2001, pp. 231-240. http://archiv.ub.uni-heidelberg.de/artdok/2344/1/Keazor_Manu_et_voce_Ikonographische_Notizen_zum_Frankfurter_Paradiesgärtlein_2001.pdf (07.03.2019).