A Book of Hours is a beautiful thing. Vivid colors, miniature paintings and hand-lettered texts make these little medieval prayer books extraordinary works of art.
Study the decorative borders framing this devotional text from the collection of The Cloisters at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and notice the flowers. Long before the Victorians relied on the special meanings of flowers to convey sentimental messages, saints and artists of the Middle Ages associated particular flowers with the virtues of the Virgin Mary. For example, violets represented her modesty; roses, her charity; and lilies, her purity. Other plants came to represent events in her life, like Our Lady’s Bedstraw for Jesus’ birth in a manger and Our Lady’s Tears for Mary’s weeping at the foot of the cross. Still more represented her garments and other physical attributes: blue morning glories came to be known as Lady’s Mantle, while forget-me-nots are reminiscent of her blue eyes. And some merely recalled her name, like marigold and rosemary.
It became customary to include these plants in gardens, creating a beautiful environment where people could pray their Book of Hours and think about how they might try to emulate Mary’s virtues in their daily lives. St. Fiacre, the Irish patron saint of gardening, tended a Mary-inspired garden at a French hospice; the sacristan of Norwich Priory in England did the same.
When John S. Stokes. Jr. became interested in medieval religious symbolism, he came across the concept of “Mary Gardens” and was so taken with the idea that he decided to rekindle interest in them. The University of Dayton’s Roesch Library spread the word about Mary Gardens and Stokes alike in three exceptional recent exhibitions.
Born in 1920, Stokes was raised as a Quaker, but converted to Catholicism in 1946. From his Philadelphia home, he and his business partner, Edward McTague, promoted Mary Gardens through writing articles about them, selling packets of seeds of plants and flowers honoring Mary, and providing suggested planting layouts. Recognizing that not everyone had the time or space for a formal garden, he promoted Mary Gardens in many forms, from windowboxes to small dishes and terrariums.
Stokes also became active in civil rights and social justice. He died in 2007; in 2013, his papers, organizational records, correspondence, research materials, articles, photographs, audio recordings, ephemera and other items related to the Mary Garden movement, were transferred to the University of Dayton. It is now known as the John Stokes and Mary Gardens Collection.
On the first floor of the library, visitors could walk through a living indoor garden filled with flowers and plants named for Mary. These included bellflowers (Our Lady’s Nightcap), clematis (Virgin’s Bower), bleeding heart (Mary’s Heart), Foxglove (Our Lady’s Gloves), Baby’s Breath (Our Lady’s Veil), pink Lenten roses, St. Joseph’s Lily, hydrangeas, lavender (Mary’s Drying Plant), OxEye Daisy (Mary, Flower of God), white peony (Pentecost rose), shrub roses (Mary’s Sorrow and Blood of Christ) and more.
About every 10 days, some plants were alternated to represent the changing seasons: tulips (also known as Mary’s Prayer) for spring, begonias and hyacinths (Star of Bethlehem and Lily-Among-Thorns) for summer, chrysanthemums and cyclamens (All Saint’s Flower and Our Lady’s Little Ladles) for fall, and Christmas kalanchoes and daffodils (Mary’s Star) for winter.
Saint Joseph, Workman: Patron of Mary’s Gardeners, also designed by Bethune, features St. Joseph, husband of Mary and the patron saint of workers. The cultivating tool he holds in his hand highlights the parallel between cultivating plant life and cultivating our own spiritual life.
The garden represented other traditional elements of a Mary Garden: enclosed, with one or two axes establishing a symmetrical planting of flower beds. For proportion, several plants of each variety were placed together. The garden’s cross-shaped design, another medieval tradition, was inspired by Stokes’ research.
As part of his work with the Wellsprings Ecumenical Center, Stokes frequently appeared on Input, a panel discussion of issues related to race, faith and community that aired on Philadelphia television from 1968 to 1971. An episode called “Flower Power” featured Stokes discussing Marian flower symbolism; a recording of it was available to watch not only in the library’s lobby, but also on archive.org.
Artifacts, photographs and personal papers belonging to Stokes and displayed in cases positioned around the mezzanine on the second floor invited visitors to become more acquainted with Stokes, American Catholicism, and Catholic social justice. Another display covered the Mary Garden in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, which inspired Stokes to create the Mary Gardens movement. Collages along the walls of the exhibit space represented the hundreds of slides, photographs and pamphlets from the collection.
A selection of hand-painted woodcut-style Mary flower prints by local Dayton artist A. Joseph Barrish, S.M., were also displayed on this floor. These images were created as illustrations for the book Mary’s Flowers: Gardens, Legends and Meditations by Vincenzina Krymow. One of these works was featured on a bookmark promoting the exhibit, which also came with a wildflower-seed-studded paper flowerpot which you could plant in your own garden.
The Marian Library Gallery on the seventh floor of the library was filled with 24 newly commissioned paintings by Cincinnati artist Holly Schapker that feature Mary flowers and scenes from Mary’s life. Several of the paintings were inspired by well-known artists and their masterpieces, from Mary Cassatt, Georgia O’Keeffe, Monet and Grandma Moses to Giovanni Bellini’s Pieta and Annunciation, in the style of Fra Filippo Lippi.
“Pray…that young people will come forward to carry on the work of the Flowers of Our Lady and Mary Gardens as a living tradition – supported by the archives of our work,” Stokes said. To encourage that, the University of Dayton’s bookstore sells Mary Garden Eco-Cubes. Containing seeds, growing material and a statue of Mary that can be placed in or next to a decorated wooden box, they are available in five different varieties: Mary’s Drying Plant (Lavender), Eyes of Mary (Forget-Me-Not), Fruitfulness of Mary (Strawberry), Our Lady’s Modesty (Violet), and Our Lady’s Rose (Rose).
Visitors could also sign an electronic guestbook and be entered to win a rose-printed vase by local artist Joe Plummer, who used textured hosiery to create the pattern and the color blue to symbolize Mary.
Click here for garden guides, plant lists and other resources. For more information, read “Mary Gardens Historical Perspective, by John S. Stokes, Jr., adapted from “An Historical Note” pamphlet written for the Annapolis Mary Garden in 1991, and “A Mary Garden for Mother’s Day,” by Rita Heikenfeld.