In the Office of Readings, on the Feast of the Visitation, the first reading is from the Song of Songs.
It seems to have been a common theme in late medieval art to portray Mary interpreted as the 'Garden Enclosed' as referred to in the Song of Songs. As someone who loves gardens I like the idea of the garden having a place in sacred art. I am talking here of the garden grown for beauty, the 'flower garden' as it would be called here in the US. In Britain, where I come from, 'garden' always means a place cultivated for beauty.
I am not aware of this being a common subject for artists to paint today and one wonders why? The first answer that comes to mind, almost as a knee-jerk response, is that genuine piety for Mary has declined and this is just one more casualty in the devotional lexicon.
It might be this, but also, it is very likely a reflection also of a different attitude to gardens and to man's place in creation that is prevalent today and especially strong in the US.
Historically, the wilderness was seen the place of untamed nature which is the home of the devil. Christ went to meet him there for 40 days and when monks and hermits went out to the desert, it was not so much as we might think today, to escape the city, but rather to engage in spiritual battle in the wilderness, the lair of the enemy. In the painting below by the Flemish artist Robert Campin (scroll down to the second last), we see the father of monasticism, Anthony Abbot (with St Catherine of Siena, John the Baptist and, I think, St Barbara), now resting in the garden having completed, one presumes, his spiritual battles in the Egyptian wilderness.
Today, however, the beauty of nature as wilderness is seen as the highest form of natural beauty, of greater beauty than cultivated nature (which would be thought of as unnatural because it is 'man altered'). Here in the US, for example, people particularly prize their national parks as places of wilderness unaffected by man. They are wonderful and beautiful places to visit, but nevertheless very different from those in countries that are of the Old World. In the UK, where I come from there is no part of the land, as far as I am aware, that is not man-affected. Our national parks preserve the look of ancient farmland. The Lake District, for example, in the northwest of England is a landscape that has been shaped by man for centuries through agriculture. It's beauty was admired by the Romantic poets - it is the place, for example, where Wordsworth saw that 'host of golden daffodils' that he wrote about.
The wilderness is beautiful, but it is part of a fallen world and we know objectively that by God's grace man can raise the beauty of nature up to something higher than the wilderness (it should be said also, that as a fallen creature with free will, he is also capable of destroying its beauty too). It is a neo-pagan philosophy that makes nature untouched by man as ultimate ideal for beauty. It arises from an attitude that man and his activity is not natural and the influence of civilization is always detrimental to nature. This attitude took hold strongly in the US due to the influence of figures such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.
For the Christian, man is meant to cultivate the world (or large parts of it at least) and if he does so well, he elevates it's beauty because he raises it up to what it was meant to be. So farmland is more beautiful than wilderness and a garden, grown for the contemplation of beauty is more beautiful than farmland.
The second point that arises in my consideration of this is the question as to whether or not gardening is a male or a female pastime? Talking to many here in the US, the impression I get is that people see planting vegetables or rearing animals for food as a masculine thing; but growing a garden for its beauty as something intrinsically feminine. I have noticed since I have been here in the US that it seems to be a fashion among Catholic academics (especially those with distributist tendencies) who have even a small plot of land to use it for rearing chickens, keeping bees or growing vegetables. But I don't see much interest in creating a 'garden enclosed'.
Again, this goes against the tradition and not the case elsewhere. Adam was a gardener, Christ, the new Adam, was mistaken for a gardener. Christ went to the wilderness to meet the devil, but when he wanted to pray to his Father, he went to the garden. Also, while Mary is identified with the garden itself, it was the man in the Song of Songs who cultivated that garden and gathered lilies for his love. Furthermore, to add a personal note, my great grandfather was head gardener of the Duke of Northumberland (so the family lore goes); my grandfather was and my dad still is a very keen amateur gardener (my father's garden was even featured once on national television).
Aristotle it seems to suggest that the natural home for man is not the wilderness but the city, where he lives in association with others. Scripture seems to support this: for example, in psalm 106 the city is the place of culture from which the wilderness is banished; and in the Book of Revelation, our final home will be the city of the New Jerusalem. That city, however, is not a concrete jungle, but rather is a garden city in which the Tree of Life flourishes and Eden has been restored by Christ the Head Gardener. The garden in these accounts is a place of beauty, a retreat for relaxation and contemplation for city dwellers. Everything is grown for its beauty and to delight the senses - taste, smell, vision - as well as sustenance. The little bit of reading about medieval gardens seems to suggest that, consistent with this, they were designed with both utility and beauty in mind (just as with architecture it seems, utility and beauty are seen as two different aspects of what is good). By this the work of man adds harmony to the hymn of the cosmos in proclaiming the glory of God.
Furthermore, Leo XIII said in his encyclical Rerum Novarum, that men (I assume here in the sense of all humanity) should be encouraged to cultivate the land. I have heard this used as an argument by those Catholic academics to support the idea that they ought to be keeping chickens and bees in their backyard and growing vegetables. If you enjoy it then I say go ahead and do it, but I feel no such obligation myself. Frankly, I can't see the point as long as the local supermarket sells ready-cooked chickens for under $5 and jars of honey and vegetables and fruit from all over the world year round.
However, what is not so often remarked upon is that Leo says that in cultivating the land, man will, 'learn to love the very soil that yields in response to the labor of their hands, not only food to eat, but an abundance of good things for themselves and those that are dear to them [my emphasis].' He says specifically that he should cultivate for reasons that go beyond generation of food. This I suggest is the garden that man can contemplate for its beauty. I would even go so far to say that this is the higher goal. The Marian garden is higher than the Marthan.
In advocating that men grow flowers I am not suggesting that this should be the goal of unreconstructed men so that they can discover their 'feminine side'. On the contrary, the cultivation of beauty for contemplation should be seen as much a masculine occupation as a feminine one and a way in which the true masculinity is realized for it is part of what mankind is meant to do.
Perhaps there are parallels in the modern feminization of flower gardening with the feminization of prayer and contemplation that has lead to a drop in the number of priestly and religious vocations in the Church, and to the fact that in a typical congregation women always seem to outnumber men. Perhaps the antidote to both is the same - the reinforcement of the role of fathers in the family. In the first case, by leading the family in prayer, and in the second case by being happy once again to cultivate natural beauty as an example to their sons...even if it is only by watering a window box to grow flowers to give to his wife!
Pictures below is Noli me tangere by John of Flanders, 14th century - Christ with holy spade! And below that: Martin Schongauer, Madonna in Rose Garden, 15th century; and below: Gerard David, and Robert Campin, both late gothic Flemish. Picture above are from 14th century English psalters.