What is this tree? (botany/architecture)
May 18, 2011 11:37 AM   Subscribe

Please help me identify this plant, or what is the meaning behind my potential tattoo? (yes, these two are the same question)

I am planning on getting a tattoo to express my obsession with Notre Dame cathedral in Paris. I would quite like to get one of the plants in the arches of the main doors. Presumably tho these aren't just decorative, but also symbolise something or other. I'd like to find out what, before inking it on my body forever, but I can't even figure out what tree (bush?) they are.

Main pic of the one I'd like to get.
Different representation, presumably same tree.
Possibly different tree (leaves look different, tho berry/fruit (?) the same).

Do any botanical experts (or religious architecture experts) have any idea? Thank you all!
posted by ClarissaWAM to Science & Nature (26 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
posted by RustyBrooks at 11:39 AM on May 18, 2011

Acanthus? I can't find examples of those flowers/berries, however. But acanthus is the most common foliage ornament, and it symbolizes everlasting life.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 11:45 AM on May 18, 2011

you're sure it's not just grapes?
posted by changeling at 11:45 AM on May 18, 2011 [2 favorites]

I think it's unlikely to be an actual plant or tree. Most things in art were stylized at that time, and no one was doing detailed botanical studies except for maybe monks using plants for medicinal/spiritual purposes.

I know that there was a lot of "acanthus" around as an artistic motif.

A more scholarly explanation: Medieval Naturalism and the Botanical Carvings at Corcomroe Abbey

(Google: botanical gothic sculpture)
posted by thebazilist at 11:47 AM on May 18, 2011

If they're hops they're very stylized: the actual plants have much bigger leaves compared to the cones, and hop cones are more scaly looking.
posted by exogenous at 11:49 AM on May 18, 2011

Here's a Notre Dame gargoyle eating grapes, for reference.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 11:50 AM on May 18, 2011

I don't know what kind of plant it is, but this exact leaf/fruit pattern is worked into a lot of buildings on the University of Chicago campus, which makes me think that whatever it is, it's a fixture of gothic architecture.
posted by phunniemee at 11:50 AM on May 18, 2011

I'm pretty sure they're stylized grapes (Holy Communion, wine symbolizing the blood of Christ).

Acanthus is a popular landscaping plant around here - I've never seen one form noticeable fruits, and they aren't vine-y. The leaves also have much more spiny, elaborate edges vs. the lobes in the pictures.
posted by momus_window at 11:52 AM on May 18, 2011

I'm agreeing with stylized grapevines.
posted by hermitosis at 11:55 AM on May 18, 2011

I see each "cluster" under the leaves as being a clump of hops, like in your picture, not one hop. They're not usually that closely clustered but I have no idea what hops looked like in the period the church was built. Grapes seems kind of likely also but I don't know what grape leaves look like.
posted by RustyBrooks at 11:55 AM on May 18, 2011

Acanthus grow as a rosette of leaves surrounding a central stalk of flowers. Also, the leaves pictured do not resemble the acanthus leaves of classical ornament. The example appears to be a vine with branches.
posted by y2karl at 12:24 PM on May 18, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks all.

Upon digging into my books on Notre Dame (I know, I should've done that first), I have found the following:
"Plants from the Ile-de-France region such as plantain, watercress, greater celandine and hawthorn wind around the doors and portals of the cathedral."
None of these seem to quite match that particular depiction tho.

Further googling got me this page which says "On peut distinguer à gauche et à droite, d’une part les signes du Zodiaque représentant les douze mois de l’année, d’autre part les travaux des mois." (You can distinguish, to the left and right, on the one hand the signs of the zodiac, representing the twelve months, on the other hand the works of the twelve months.)
So potentially they just represent a particular season. Hm.
posted by ClarissaWAM at 12:39 PM on May 18, 2011

It looks more like a blackberry/raspberry vine than anything else to me.
posted by domo at 2:09 PM on May 18, 2011

If you like it, and it means something to you, get it.

I have an iris tattoo. It was a little simpler for me because I knew I wanted irises before I decided to get the tattoo. Some people ask me why irises, and I tell them it's because they grow wild where I'm from and thus remind me of home. People seem to be totally fine with that - nobody's ever delved into the history of irises or their symbolism in X or Y culture.

If someone asks what plant it is, just say, "I'm not entirely sure - I chose it because it's a decorative motif from Notre Dame." And then you can maybe add something about where on the building it is or what it might represent in the grand scheme of the building. If the person is even that curious (most people aren't).
posted by Sara C. at 2:17 PM on May 18, 2011

Best answer: Hawthorn wold be my guess, based on your links. The fruit is clustered because how are you gonnna carve/cast individual berries on those thin stalks.

The leaf tips are rounded due to erosion.
posted by Max Power at 2:46 PM on May 18, 2011

Response by poster: One of my friends suggested hawthorn as well (without knowing of the mention in the book), so maybe I'll "accept" that one.

And yes, I agree with not worrying too much about the symbolism, but I wouldn't feel comfortable having a tattoo that stands for something I totally can't identify with. It would feel weird, regardless of people asking / having to explain.

Well, thanks again everyone! (I guess I could mark my own answer best answer now... but I won't)
posted by ClarissaWAM at 2:57 PM on May 18, 2011

Hawthorn is a tree, not a vine. And the branches have thorns. I'm pretty sure that's not hawthorn.

It looks like a berry (raspberry, blackberry, something in that family) or possibly grape vines. Berries would be a symbol of spring or summer, and within French culture I'm sure grape vines in fruit have their own seasonal relevance.
posted by Sara C. at 3:16 PM on May 18, 2011

Do you have a picture that shows what these carvings are next to? As I read on another site, these were supposed to be easily "read" as a story by an illiterate population, so you'd need the context of what they were next to.

Based on the information on this page, I'm not sure they were one of the works of the 12 months, and certainly not one of the zodiac signs, so it must be something else.
posted by HopperFan at 7:16 PM on May 18, 2011

I wouldn't get overly hung up in what plant this actually looks like. Much medieval art was very stylistic in nature - often with details grossly enlarged. The closest example I can think of is heraldic oak trees where the acorns are drawn so that they would be bigger than a man's head, so that the tree could be identified as an oak. So this could be a hawthorn. Or grapes. Or a vegetable lamb that hasn't bloomed yet.

Also, while there are some notable exceptions, I think plants typically symbolized the artist not wanting to leave a bunch of white space.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 7:09 AM on May 19, 2011

Response by poster: Hopperfan, this is the full portal. My "ND at the crossroads of cultures" book also definitely mentions the zodiac and seasons / ages, tho they explain further that this can be found nearest the doors (those square "posts", if you wish), so not where my plant is. The whole "archy" area is just described as "angels, patriarchs, kings, prophets". They forgot to mention "plants". *lol*
posted by ClarissaWAM at 10:14 AM on May 19, 2011

Oh, yeah, that's definitely just ornamental. It might be a heavily stylized version of some plant (I still stand by berry bush or grape vine), but I don't think the symbolism is important. And I'm very sure that if you got that motif tattooed on yourself, you wouldn't be a dolt to tell people, "it's a botanical motif from Notre Dame" without further explanation.
posted by Sara C. at 10:16 AM on May 19, 2011

Best answer: Thanks to you, ClarissaWAM, I've learned a good deal of fascinating things about Notre Dame and French Gothic Architecture over the past day or so.

Those lovely plants form the first in a series of "archivolts." ("An archivolt (or voussure) is an ornamental molding or band following the curve on the underside of an arch. It is composed of bands of ornamental moldings (or other architectural elements) surrounding an arched opening.")

The other archivolts contain members of the "Heavenly Court," consisting of kings, queens, saints, and "Elders of the Apocalypse." (love that!)

I think your tattoo will be beautiful, and (like others have said), even if you don't know the exact plant, it doesn't matter - it has quite a story behind it.
posted by HopperFan at 5:28 PM on May 19, 2011

Best answer: It is definitely hawthorn. Hawthorn (whitethorn, maythorn, the thorn of Glastonbury) was often used to symbolize Mary, particularly in Medieval France. Notre Dame de L'Epine is a shrine to Mary.

The leaf tips are rounded due to erosion.

They are actually rounded because Crataegus monogyna has lobed leaves.
posted by oneirodynia at 5:46 PM on May 19, 2011

Oops, don't know why I wrote L'Epine up there. Thinking of thorns, I guess.
posted by oneirodynia at 5:52 PM on May 19, 2011

Response by poster: Aah thanks oneirodynia, THAT explains the leaf discrepancy!

And thanks to everyone else as well, esp Hopperfan for the additional background.

I'd better not say that I have decided to probably go with something different after all... *cough cough*
posted by ClarissaWAM at 9:23 AM on May 21, 2011

Best answer: I know ClarissaWAM has decided to go with another tattoo design, but I just got a response from Notre Dame (really!) so I figured I'd include it here for posterity.


From: Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris
Date: 2011/6/22
Subject: Re: Demande de renseignements
To: HopperFan


Pour faire suite à votre demande, et d'après la monographie de Denise Jalabert : "quand la flore doit avoir un caractère monumental, dans les chapiteaux ou dans l'archivolte, alors il (le sculpteur) revient aux formes généralisées, aux dents rondes, aux fruits en grappe sans variété, aux feuilles sans espèce. Il se laisse aller à sa fantaisie en recherchant seulement de belles formes décoratives, comme dans la faune où il montre, par exemple, un buste d'enfant sortant d'un corps de palmipède terminé en rinceau de feuillage."

Ces rinceaux seraient donc stylisés, correspondant à l'imagination du sculpteur et non une espèce déterminée.


Administration du site internet

Le 20 mai 11 à 02:18, anonymous@jiga.fr a écrit :

De la part de HopperFan de USA
Sujet: Architecture, art , histoire de la cathédrale
Date: 20/05/2011


Pourriez-vous s'il vous plaît me dire - sur l'archivolte extérieure du portail de la Vierge, il ya une plante avec des feuilles et une sorte de fruits - pouvez-vous me dire quelle plante est-il?

Voici une photo: http://twitpic.com/4z01vl/full

Et vous pouvez les voir très clairement ici:


Ils encadrent la "cour céleste."

Je vous remercie

posted by HopperFan at 5:31 AM on June 22, 2011

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