One of the Church’s landmark contributions to horticulture and to book design remains buried in obscurity for all but experts. An ecclesiastical commission known as Hortus Eystettensis — the Latin for Garden of Eichstätt — forever altered the way the West looks at the plant kingdom.

Not garden-variety plants

Hortus Eystettensis is man’s earliest documentation of a specific garden and is the oldest of all of the great botanicals,” said Tam O’Neill, who has dealt in antique prints for the last 25 years. “Hortus Eystettensis is considered to be the greatest early botanical picture book.”

The botanical picture book’s story began in Bavaria, where the Diocese of Eichstätt was established in 745, as one of the oldest dioceses in Germany. The bishop’s palace, known as the Willibaldsburg, was built on a hill overlooking the city.

At the close of the 16th century, Prince-Bishop Martin von Schaumburg established a palace garden. The garden was the first major European botanical garden outside Italy.

The bishop’s successor, the Prince-Bishop Johann Konrad Gemmingen, enlarged and enhanced the garden. Johann Konrad, a member of one of Germany’s oldest and richest families, rebuilt the ancient episcopal palace, but the gardens were his true passion.

Incorporating plants imported from around the Ottoman Empire and the Americas, the bishop’s landscape grew into one of the first comprehensive gardens devoted to flowering plants. Reports indicate that the garden included as many as 500 different colored tulips from the Netherlands.

In 1611, a visitor described the palace surrounded by terraced gardens: “Each of the eight gardens contained flowers from a different country; they varied in the beds and flowers, especially in the beautiful roses, lilies, tulips.”

“It would have been the first time most people had ever seen a lot of these plants,” said O’Neill.

Objects of beauty

In 1611, to record the spectacular garden for posterity, the prince-bishop of Eichstätt commissioned a catalog — also called a florilegium, from the Latin meaning “a gathering of flowers.” The bishop enlisted the expertise of Basilius Besler, an apothecary intimately familiar with medicinal plants.

The horticultural catalog he oversaw would prove groundbreaking for several reasons. For one, Hortus Eystettensis is widely acknowledged as the first botanical book to portray flowering plants not merely as natural history, but also as objects of beauty.

The florilegium also broke with tradition by chronicling the expansive garden according to the seasonal progression of plants in bloom. Consequently, the work sometimes is called the Four Seasons.

One account includes Besler’s claim that he worked intermittently for 16 years on the drawings. Another source notes that over a period of more than a year, boxes of fresh-cut flowers were sent each week from the bishop’s gardens at Eichstätt to Nuremberg, about 50 miles to the north. Working from the fresh flowers, artists rendered colored sketches. The drawings then were sent to engravers who created copper plates for prints.

Hortus Eystettensis also set a new standard by printing the bishop’s book on the largest sheets of paper available at the time.

“The Besler florilegium is as grand in scale as it is in scope. The magnificent engravings are also the first large-folio natural history botanicals. There was no format to follow,” said O’Neill, who sells Besler plates in her gallery, Tam O’Neill Fine Arts in Denver.

“The large folio paper gloriously displays every flower in its actual size,” she said.

The Four Seasons set the standard for all great flower books of the subsequent centuries, but the prince-bishop did not live to see the completion of his vision: He died in 1612, the year before the completion of the first edition in 1613.

Rare collection

O’Neill’s inventory includes several individual colored plates from editions of the bishop’s catalog, but the Huntington Library in San Marino, Calif., possesses in its collection of rare works a bound 1640 Nuremberg edition of Hortus Eystettensis.

Since 1999, Stephen Tabor has served as the curator of early printed books at the Huntington. However, he had not previously seen the volume, nor had his colleague whose job is to retrieve requested rare works from storage in the stacks.

Tabor said of his colleague, “When he saw this book, he said, ‘Wow! What is that?’”

Tabor told OSV that even for men accustomed to keeping company with books as rare as a Gutenberg Bible on vellum or an Ellesmere manuscript of Geoffrey Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales,” Hortus Eystettensis does make an impression. “It’s such a massive thing,” he said.

One account from the era of its publication claimed that a wheelbarrow was needed to transport Hortus Eystettensis. The covers measure approximately 22 inches by 17 inches.

Tabor said the Huntington Library’s edition is a scaled-back version and the plates are not colored. “But the art work is extremely good. If you looked at herbals and botanical works from 50 years earlier, you’d be appalled at how crude they are,” Tabor told OSV. “They weren’t looking at this depth, which was almost scientific. It’s first rate scientific art.”

According to British Library’s online records, Besler originally estimated that the florigelium would cost 3,000 florins (gold coins), but the project’s total cost to the diocese was 17,920 florins. The first print run of 300 copies sold out within four years.

Two editions were printed. A black-and-white reference book with text was intended for apothecaries and other professionals. A luxury version without text was printed on high-quality paper and lavishly hand-colored.

Bishop’s dream revived

The bishop’s garden was met with violence and misfortune during the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), when the bishop’s Willibaldsburg palace served as a military fort.

In May 1633, Swedish troops seized the palace, held it for 10 days, then abandoned it. The palace was recaptured five months later, but enemy attacks and defensive trenching had destroyed the garden.
After the death of Johann Konrad, the Church-sponsored florilegium was published twice more in Nuremberg in 1640 and 1713, using the same copper plates.

 At one point, records indicate, French troops carried off the plates for scrap metal. The plates escaped that fate, but since they were so worn down, they were scrapped and melted down in 1817 by the Royal Mint in Munich.

Over the centuries, many editions of Hortus Eystettensis were pillaged for individual prints.

O’Neill said, “The prints in our collection are of superb quality and are in excellent condition.”

The plates in O’Neill’s gallery range in price from $1,100 to $9,000. Facsimilies are available, too, in poster size and various formats.

In 1998, the Garden of Eichstätt was re-created using Hortus Eystettensis as a guide to plantings and was opened to the public, bringing a bishop’s dream once again to fruition.

Colleen Smith writes from Colorado.