Works of art incorporated metaphors for Heaven

In the history of things, gardens come first and last: the Garden of Eden at the beginning of Creation and the Garden of Paradise at the end of time for those who have done good works. These garden bookends promise shelter, sustenance, and experiences beyond human comprehension.

Much of the Qur’an is concerned with humans leading a righteous life in order to prepare for the Day of Judgement, when they will enter Heaven or Hell. Heaven is described in the Qur’an as jannat, a word also translated as garden. Thus, the connection between Paradise and cool, green gardens with running water and fruit trees runs through the entire history of Islam.

Works of art incorporated metaphors for Heaven
Humayun’s Tomb (Image: Archnet)

Royal patrons created historically important pleasure gardens in many parts of the Islamic world. In his Kitab al-majalis wa’l-musayarat (Book of Homiletic Sessions and Accomplishments on Journeys), the jurist-scholar Qadi al-Numan reports on the Fatimid Caliph-Imam as a great constructor of gardens, irrigation works, canals, and reservoirs.

Works of art incorporated metaphors for Heaven
Painting from the Diwan of Sultan Mirza, dated Iran, 1582. This courtly party may be seen as an earthly paradise which evokes heaven. (Image & text: Spirit & Life catalogue

The monumental pavilions in Islamic architecture often looked out upon a flat open space, known as a maydan, that often included waterworks and paths. In some instances gardens created backdrops for architectural monuments such as the mausoleum of Emperor Humayun in Delhi, India. Often, there was a vibrant interaction between the designers of the gardens due to trade across vast territories and the mobility of the craftsmen.

In both secular and sacred contexts flowers, fruits, and trees were considered acceptable forms of ornament. Even in cemeteries where the tombstones are inscribed with the names of the deceased and prayers, the surroundings were planted as gardens with grass and trees.

Several paintings depicted figures enjoying picnics, concerts, and philosophical discussions in garden settings while flowers, birds, and animals decorated pottery and metalworks across the Islamic world.

Works of art incorporated metaphors for Heaven
Bowl, early 13th century Iran (Image: Aga Khan Museum)

This bowl in the collection of the Aga Khan Museum, has an aquatic theme where leaves and stems fill the sides and the fish swim in the base portrayed as the sea. ‘Water is an important symbol in Islam and gardens with axial pools filled with fish were seen as metaphors for the heavenly garden.’1

James L. Westcoat Jr. “Gardens, pavilions and tents: The arts of shelter,” Architecture in Islamic Arts: Treasures of the Aga Khan Museum, published by Aga Khan Trust for Culture

1Spirit & Life Catalogue, Masterpieces of Islamic Art from the Aga Khan Museum Collection, published by Aga Khan Trust for Culture

Compiled by Nimira Dewji

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