Hortus deliciarum

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Carrying the liberal arts forward


Hortus Deliciarum, Philosophy with the Seven Liberal Arts

From 1159 to 1175, Herrad of Landsberg worked on the Hortus deliciarum, an illuminated encyclopedia of religious and profane learning supporting the spiritual formation of Benedictine nuns. She served as Abbess of Hohenbourg, a monastery in the Vosges mountains from 1167 to 1195, strengthening its reputation for discipline and learning. In 324 parchment pages, the Hortus deliciarum won recognition as a major source of the learning in its time and serves as a banner for rallying our efforts.

We live in an era of impoverished historical awareness. The Hortus Deliciarum, the Garden of Delights, represents a history in which a pedagogy of study held a much greater place in the panoply of learning than it does now. The work encompassed a rich presentation of religious and secular knowledge available during the 12th century. It served in the education of the novice nuns, not as a didactic document, but one that invited their study through a community of inquiry. Herrad filled it with illuminating images, carefully drawn and many colorfully painted, and accompanying texts, which fit together in a special way. The images were not representational, but highly conceptualized, laden with intentionally meaningful detail laid out in a memorable order. The text gave less detail than the images and served to offer the images an appropriate context. The ensemble invites questions as a few persons look at it together — Why does dialectic point aggressively and hold the head of a dog (trust me) in her left hand? Someone in the group might know the answer, or if they are curious enough, they might disperse to query those who might be able to respond. A clue?[1]

Over the centuries, the Hortus deliciarum survived several fires that destroyed the abbey, and in the 16th century, Reformation troubles closed the abbey and the manuscript became a prized work in the library of Strasbourg, rising as one of the great collections of illuminated manuscripts. While war aggrandizes the masculine claim on historic achievement, its many destructions can work to erase important cultural achievements, among them those by women, among them Herrad's masterpiece. In 1870 the city of Strasbourg came under German siege, costly to both sides. In an effort to break resistance, German forces mounted an intense artillery bombardment of the central city through the night of August 23rd, setting off a conflagration that destroyed the library and all its contents, reducing the Hortus deliciarum to ash.



  1. See Mike Higton, A Theology of Higher Education (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012). p. 21, esp. note 27).
  2. + 96"Hohenburg avant et aprés Sainte Odile," infoBRETAGNE.com (http://www.infobretagne.com/sainte-odile-hohenbourg.htm)