Constellations | Aga Khan Park, Toronto – Echoes of Paradise: the Garden and Flora in Islamic Art

Embracing the five senses as the means to reach the soul, every space and every garden are imbued with the delicate sensations that we seem to have lost in this fast-paced era. The ephemeral and the eternal are both essential to our composition of spaces…. The reading of two structures embedded in a memorable park was always a main aspiration of His Highness the Aga Khan for this project.

– Vladimir Djurovic
Lebanese Landscape Architect
Designer of the Aga Khan Park unifying the Aga Khan Museum and Ismaili Centre, Toronto

Throughout the history of Islamic civilisation, the concept of the garden and the vegetation in it has had particular significance in Muslim thought.

The various gardens were a coveted luxury, but they had a spiritual dimension too, as they were often designed to echo the lush and refreshing vegetation of al-janna: Islamic Paradise. Many descriptions in the Qur’an and in Islamic literature elaborate on its layout, its flowers, plants and trees. Hence, the concept of the garden with its rich flora has always been a central theme in Muslim cultures and in the arts.

The main tree in the Aga Khan Museum’s formal garden is the serviceberry, an environmentally friendly tree that blooms with white feathery flowers in early spring, red to purple berries in the summer, and an outstanding red foliage in the fall.

 

Throughout the Muslim world, from Spain to India, rulers and the elite invested in luxurious gardens at the heart of their palace complexes and as an integral part of ceremonial royal life. Mosques, madrasas and royal mausolea were regularly placed in a garden setting reminiscent of Paradise and artistically enhanced by references to luxurious flower gardens.

In the decorative arts references can be found both to gardens as a whole and to individual plants and flowers, the latter often chosen – beyond their beauty or practical use – for their religious or poetic significance. When flowers are not depicted in naturalistic form, intricate arabesque designs formed by overall symmetrical patterns of undulating stalks and split-leaves or split-palmettes invited reflection of the cosmic process of creation and the Divine Unity that underlies the infinite diversity of the material world.

Trees
Trees with sweet-scented blossoms and plentiful ripe fruit play a central role in literary depictions of the Islamic Paradise. The palm tree occupies a special place. One tradition describes it as man’s aunt, created out of the clay left after God’s creation of Adam. According to another, the Holy Prophet Muhammad associated the palm tree with Paradise. Reference is also made to the pomegranate tree and the mystical tuba tree, a Cyprus-like tree-of-life, placed at the heart of Paradise.

 

Plants and Flowers
Muslim culture has always expressed a profound love for plants and flowers, and gardens were carefully cultivated. Many plants were chosen not only for their beauty or health-enhancing properties but also for their religious or poetic significance. As miracles of nature, they were yet another sign of the creative and life-giving powers of Allah. Their flowering and dying away every year invited contemplation of the human condition and Islam’s promise of resurrection and eternal life in Paradise for all true believers.

 

  • Rose
Some flowers were particularly popular and are represented repeatedly in the arts of the Muslim world. A particular favourite was the rose. In popular Islamic tradition the rose was created from a drop of sweat which the Holy Prophet Muhammad lost during his miraculous night journey to Paradise. The rose also symbolises the unity of Allah, its petals the Muslim Umma, or community. Others see the rose as a symbol of the Prophet at the heart of all believers. Its thorns remind us of the difficulties Muslims have to overcome in their quest for God. Its scent anticipates those of the paradisiacal rose gardens to come.

 

  • Tulip
Another popular flower, particularly in Ottoman Turkey, was the tulip. Known as lale among the Turks and Persians alike, this versatile elegant flower was cultivated with great passion in Ottoman times. Its beauty was also celebrated in religious poetry. Here, the tulip symbolised a martyr for the faith and the mystical, self-denying lover.

 

  • Carnation & Lotus
Alongside the tulip, the carnation was another flower employed to poetically recall Divine beauty and evoke spiritual contemplation. Consequently, it, too, occurs frequently in Islamic and particularly Ottoman art. Not all flowers and plants, however, had their origins within the cultural context of the Islamic world. The lotus, an Eastern symbol of spiritual purity, was introduced to Islamic art by the Mongols in the 7th / 13th century.

 

  • Floral arrangements
When flowers are not depicted naturalistically in Islamic art, they are often used in more or less fantastic arrangements intended to enhance the surface of a building or an artefact to their best advantage. Such floral compositions are often so intricate that they completely distract the eye from the physical characteristics of the object they decorate or, indeed, obscure them. Primarily decorative, such floral schemes still offer spiritual minds the opportunity to contemplate the eternal complexity of the Universe, which emanates and culminates in its Creator, Allah.

 

  • Arabesque as an alternative to naturalistic floral compositions
The arabesque is certainly the most popular alternative to naturalistic floral compositions. Formed from a combination of stalks, scrolls, leaves and palmettes that grow from each other and develop in an endless, symmetrical arrangement, thearabesque became universally popular in Islamic art from the 5th / 11th century. The arabesque‘s adaptability and versatility lends itself to the decoration of artefacts and architectural structures alike, inviting contemplation of the unfathomable interconnections and interdependencies of God.

 

Adapted from Museum With No Frontiers (MWNF)
Images courtesy of Imara Wynford Drive via UrbanToronto.ca


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