Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Naughty orchidmaniac

Just the other day, a fellow orchidmaniac contacted me about this extraordinary botanical document they’ve just re-evaluted in Denmark.

The State Museum was preparing for its new exhibition, 'Flowers and world views' which runs until 20 October. The idea is to present a spectacular and lush extravaganza of flower paintings spanning two centuries.

The exhibition offers a sensuous walk through the rich variety of the world of flowers, but it also digs deeper to show that a flower is not simply a flower. The artists’ representations of flowers, fruit, and plants are affected by history and the prevalent world view. ‘A picture of a flower is a picture of its own time.’

Five other museums in Copenhagen are all running flower exhibitions.

A key element in the state museum exhibition is the 'Gottorfer Codex’. Since 1835, the giant flower study by artist Hans Simon Holzbecker, of Hamburg. It has lain dormant in the basement of the National Gallery of Art in a special box behind a reinforced door among the most important works of art. Take a look for yourself here.

Researchers took a closer look and were shocked when they magnified certain plates in the hand-painted botanical (or maybe rather horticultural) work commissioned by Duke Friedrich III of Schleswig-Holstein-Gottorf (1597-1659) that now resides in Copenhagen.

Among the petals of the so-called ‘Orchis Italica’, there are numbers of tiny, naked men worked into the illustration. (Pictured right is less controversial illustration from the 19th century.)

In the Middle Ages, orchids were equated with aphrodisiacs – partly because of their resemblance to testes (orchis in Greek). There was a belief that medicine should resemble the cure. Holzbecker, it seemed, added tiny cartoon-like drawings of men, obviously responding to treatment, as part of the flora.

An article in the Danish press discusses the apparent indecency of the homunculi. Was Holzbecker, although a brilliant and accurate artist, still influenced by earlier belief, that plants would show their medicinal powers (if any) in their appearance? Or is it simply because the illustratror was becoming bored of the detailed task?

Here's the link, but it’s in Danish.

If you want a moment of true orchidelirous bonkerosity, run it through a well-known web translator.

By Pamela Kelt

Illustrations: Tulipa gesneriana from the Gottorfer Codex
Orchis italica (as syn. Orchis longicornis), 1818, "Curtis's botanical magazine" vol.45 pl. 1944

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