Photo provided by: 
Johan van Parys

Exploring the Mary Garden

Nestled in the north-west corner between The Basilica, the sacristy, and the rectory sits The Basilica’s Mary Garden, a hidden treasure waiting to be discovered or discovered anew. Last Saturday, Karen Harrison and Wanda Sweeney were busy at work in the garden tidying it up in anticipation of the beginning of the month of May, dedicated to the Blessed Mother. They tend the garden lovingly and faithfully all year long. 

The Basilica of Saint Mary is one of only a handful of churches in the United States that has a true Mary Garden. Often people mistakenly think that any garden with a statue of Mary in it is a Mary Garden. Rather, they are much more complex than that and mostly void of a statue.

Mary Gardens originated in Medieval France and its surrounding countries. The basic concept is an enclosed garden known as a hortus conclusus referencing the virginity of Mary. Each flower in the garden represents one of Mary’s virtues. The Lily, e.g. represents Mary’s purity; the Bleeding Heart represents Mary’s sorrow; Solomon’s Seal represents Mary’s wisdom; Gilly Flower represents Mary’s fidelity; and Violets represent Mary’s modesty, to name but a few. The Garden as a whole thus symbolizes Mary with all her strengths and virtues. 

Mary Gardens traditionally do not have a statue of Mary in them as the garden itself is intended to be a representation of Mary. And different from praying before a statue of Mary, believers enter the garden and, aided by the colors and fragrance of the flowers, they spiritually immerse themselves in Mary’s virtues while praying that her virtues may become theirs.  

The idea for a Mary Garden at The Basilica of Saint Mary was proposed by the Friends of the Basilica of Saint Mary, now known as The Basilica Landmark. After years of study and planning, The Basilica’s Mary Garden became reality in 1997. Staying as true as possible to the medieval concept, the original design was done by Stacy Moriarty of Moriarty/Cordon. Given the difference in climate and the specifics of the shady location of our garden, the traditional selection of plants did not thrive. Thus, after careful consideration and with due respect to the original design, the Garden was enhanced in 2008 with the help of Brad Agee of the Department of Landscape Architecture at the University of Minnesota to include more hardy plants. Standing in the tradition of those who assigned Mary’s virtues to the original selection of plants, Mary Ritten recognized and described Marian virtues in the newly selected plants, more suited for our Minnesota winters. 

The Basilica’s Mary Garden thus is a reinterpretation of the traditional French Mary Garden adapted to our Minnesota weather, no less inspired and no less inspirational. To give but a few examples, sweet autumn clematis, a vigorous vine speaks to Mary’s tenacity and courage while facing her many trials. The yellow flowers in Mary’s Mantle remind us of the radiance of Mary as a source of consolation. The roses are a clear reference to Mary’s title in the Litany of Loretto as Rosa Mystica or Mystical Rose. 

Though originally intended to have no representation of Mary in the Garden, Beckoning, a bronze sculpture by Gloria Tew was installed in the garden in the year 2000. This was in response to multiple requests for a statue of Mary. However, in order to be true to the original concept of a Mary Garden, the sculpture is semi-abstract and intentionally ambiguous. 

Her placement in the garden and the way she holds her hands can indeed be interpreted as Mary inviting us in. It may also be understood as a more abstract representation of hospitality and invitation. Regardless of who you might think she is, her goal and ours is that you enter the Mary Garden especially during this month of May dedicated to Mary and spend some time in it. Inspired by its beauty, we invite you to meditate on the virtues of Mary represented by the flowers in the garden and to pray that her virtues may become yours.

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