It all started with the Old Testament, as many things did: “My sister, my spouse, is an enclosed garden, an enclosed garden, a fountain sealed up,” reads the Song of Songs: “Hortus conclusus soror mea, sponsa, hortus conclusus, fons signatus“. Hortus conclusus literally means “enclosed garden” and is both an emblematic attribute of the Virgin Mary in Medieval and Renaissance poetry and art, as well as a genre of actual garden.
For the 1-day-event of the same name, FRAGMENTA presented works from different periods and in different techniques of artist Teresa Sciberras, which all revolve around the theme of the Hortus Conclusus. This collaboration was an exciting one for Teresa, as she expresses in her words “It gave me the opportunity to tie together several trains of thought that I have been following over the last few years. It also allowed me to reconcile two aspects of my practice which I sometimes see as conflicting: text and image, language and picture-making, words and paint.”
Situated in the 17th century Cloisters of the Dominican Monastery of Rabat, FRAGMENTA felt very welcome in this atmosphere of shifting light and whistling wind… (Side note: According to Dominican sources, the Dominican friars came to Malta in 1450 and built their first friary at Rabat over a cave where according to tradition the Virgin Mary had spoken to a sportsman who had taken refuge there.)
FRAGMENTA was not hiding an untouched womb or protecting a woman from sin, however, the cloisters provided welcome shelter, as every garden history notes: “gardening, more than architecture, more than painting, more than music, and far more than literature, is an ephemeral art; its masterpieces disappear, leaving little trace.”
Visitors were invited to freely wander through the open galleries forming a quadrangle. Along the walls of the covered walk, FRAGMENTA and Teresa had chosen and arranged images and texts, which have inspired Teresa in her work. Teresa states “Putting the show together almost became like an intertextual game, where each of the objects on display – the texts, the reproduced works, my pieces – pointed towards others, which pointed towards others, etc. Some connections I knew were there, others dove-tailed in the making of the exhibition. The texts were a gathering of extracts, excerpts, and quotes that I have used directly or indirectly in my work –either as motivation or material. The posters were blown-up details of postcards which I have collected on visits to exhibitions, museums and galleries, mainly in Italy, of frescos and paintings, mainly from the Quattrocento, which have impacted in various ways on my work.” The images and motifs included Taddeo Gaddi, Agnolo Gaddi, Simone Martini, Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Benozzo Gozzoli and unknown artists. The oldest image, dating back to the 9th century, showed a medivial poem (and a small monk) by Rabanus Maurus. The images were accompanied and juxtaposed by carefully chosen quotes, ranging from Dante, Norman Mailer, to Borges and Italo Calvino.
Various combinations of historical references and images produced a space of imagination free to explore. “La fantasia è un posto dove ci piove dentro. / The imagination is a place where it rains,” says Italo Calvino in his book Six Memos for the New Millenium. (1988), and we look upon an episode from Orlando Innamorato, depicted during the 17th century– a man dropping from the sky, while two figures observe his fall. There is also an eagle of some sort, and looking at that oil painting on pietra paesina, we cannot help but feel that we are falling as well, sucked into the whole of imaginative temptation.
Teresa finds the perfect quote for this sensation from Peter France, from The Philosopher’s Garden (2004), speaking of Julie’s Garden in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s La Nouvelle Heloise (1761): “Nothing is solid and impenetrable. People inhabit places and vice-versa. And in returning to places, people revisit their past. Time, place and their inhabitants are able to invest one another. This is because their true location is not in the physical world so much as in the imagination, or the heart. Where the intellect divides them, the heart mixes them into something evanescent, an aesthetic state of categoric imprecision. Sensibility has the peculiar property of being able to do contradictory things – to inhabit and escape what is present before us. Its ideal locus is the garden, a condition without solidity.”
Looking at details of Lorenzetti’s frescos the contemporary visitor might think something similar to Jacques Derrida in The Truth in Painting (1978) “What is a box? Is the text in the box separate from the text outside the box? How is it linked? What is the border, the margin, the frame? Is it outside or inside the box, and why do we talk of a box, say, and not a square or an oblong, a coffin or a crypt? What are we trying to hide? Or what are we hereby hiding? What is a box?”
The activities most often portrayed in the numerous fifteenth-century paintings were sitting, walking and playing music, whereas strenuous activities were inappropriate – the contemporary visitors captured the spirit very well, dwelling in the arcades, looking at the gardener going about his duty.
Some visitors followed the “Instructions on how to draw the Basic Maze” by Aidan Meehan. Maze Patterns. (1994) “Take a line from the foot of the figure, round the outside, through the gap and on inside. We have entered the fort. Then produce the top of the figure down and round to end alongside the end of the spiral, and bring the end of the spiral back in the opposite direction using the horns as guides. Then erase the horns and you have the fortress.”
About the biggest painting on exhibition, Teresa explains: “It is from a series of works called Little White Lies: a collection of paintings of hybrid structures of ambiguous scale and function. Aside from its art-historical references, this piece derives from a body of photographs I collected on my daily walk from Valletta to my studio in Hamrun. It includes details of the urban fabric, both permanent and temporary, especially in the context of Valletta being redefined. Features such as scaffolding or barriers, which come and go, interact with more permanent or typical features such as bastions or balconies, but this interaction points to the constant activity of construction and demolition that belies permanence.”
A late 15th century variant of painterly depiction was to combine the Annunciation in the Hortus Conclusus with the Virgin and Unicorn, popular in secular art. There was no unicorn in the FRAGMENTA-garden, but magic was still around: A real birds nest became manifest in a gryphon’s nest; the Cathedral of Siena was supported by a wooden pallet; Monks were caught surrounded by squirrels and fishing in the countryside on a detail of Agnolo Gaddi’s 14th century fresco; Simone Martini’s noble knight Guidoroccio da Fogliano was riding along the balustrades of the cloister, and other small surprises were tucked away in corners and niches, …
Teresa expresses this best by saying “The beautiful Dominican cloister was an ideal setting for this slightly disorientating labyrinth, as well as the key link in the chain of references. All the works relate to enclosures of some sort – literal, architectural, spatial, metaphoric, spiritual, linguistic, and the need to try to either escape from them or somehow exist within them. This is the kind of space – a real hortus conclusus – that, after a while of wandering around and around within it, makes you want to ask: is there actually an outside?”
“I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space.” William Shakespeare. Hamlet. Act II, Sc.2.
Special thanks go to Prior Paul Gatt, who welcomed FRAGMENTA with an open heart and open mind, to create a garden of sublime delights of quotes and images.