Too few New Yorkers realize that they live in a city with the world’s greatest botanical library, which contains about one million catalogued items and eleven million archival documents, many of extreme rarity and value and all acquired within about a hundred years.
Plants, after all, are entwined in so much more than agrodiversity. Even the rarest of the library’s old books never hid in isolation. One of its treasures is a copy of Der Gart der Gesundheit, published in Mainz in 1485. It shows flowering plants in their actual growth and shape, rather than their traditional images in woodcuts. By 1505, the Flemish master artist Gerard David was finishing his superb triptych of the Baptism of Christ, still on display in Bruges. The foreground is dotted with identifiable flowering plants, regardless of their varying seasons of flower. Some, but not all, of them have symbolic meanings, but almost all of them appear to have been modeled on the Gart’s illustrations. The garden library holds a key to a picture closely studied by the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s curator of European paintings, Maryan Ainsworth, who discussed the link in her catalog of the museum’s exhibition of David’s work in 1998. Flowers in paintings are items that gallery captions too often ignore or mistake.