Gardens of Eternity: Visualizing Paradise in Islamic Art
Founder of Friends of Virginia Robinson Gardens Joan Selwyn introduced our speaker Dr. Linda Komaroff as “a very impressive lady.” A curator of Islamic art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art for over 20 years, Linda has written many books, with an emphasis on the art of Iran. Under her direction, not only has the historic Islamic art collection doubled in size, but she has started the acquisition of a “world-class” collection of contemporary Middle Eastern art that is larger and more diverse than that of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Dr. Komaroff gave a fascinating and beautifully illustrated slide lecture on the notion of paradise in Islamic art, architecture and gardens. Alluding to Robinson Gardens as a lovely paradasical setting, she explained that in Islamic art, the garden is an important metaphor for paradise. Paradise is not only a spiritual world in the hereafter, but can be visually evoked within this world.
In the dry landscape of western Arabia, water in the form of rivers and fountains is an important aspect of paradise. A well-watered bountiful garden with lush vegetation and abundant fruit trees is an ideal that rewards the virtuous and faithful in heaven. Palaces, gates, the four rivers of milk, wine, honey and water, and houris, or female companions promised to believers comprise this sacred realm. “Women and men get purified spouses. You can keep your physical form or get a new one; you can keep your spouse on earth or get a new one,” remarked Linda to much laughter from the audience.
The earliest surviving visualization of Islamic paradise is in the mosaics of the Great Mosque of Damascus in 706, where depictions of palaces, flowing rivers, and richly foliated trees abound. The notion of paradise as a garden in Iran predates Islam and goes back to the time of Cyrus the Great in the 6th century BC. In his palaces at Pasargadae, four part gardens were irrigated by intersecting stone channels. “The term paradaesa from Old Iranian was used to describe such enclosures, and it eventually passed into the English language as the word paradise,” explained Dr. Komaroff. Many of these irrigated four part garden complexes with axial water channels and walkways that intersected in the center, sometimes marked by a pool or pavilion, still survive in Iran. One of the most beautiful is the famed Bagh-e Eram in the city of Shiraz.
Persian miniature paintings from the late 14th to the 16th century depict these luxuriant earthly gardens. Paradisiacal gardens were also an important theme in Persian poetry, and for the mystical Persian poet Rumi, gardens were a symbol of divine beauty. Dr. Komaroff quoted from one of his eloquent verses: “Trees are standing in prayer, and the birds are singing hymns, and violets are prostrating to the Creator.”
Vivid pictorial imagery of paradise is also provided through carpets. One early 16th century Persian carpet at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, sometimes referred to as a paradise garden carpet, features a large center medallion on a pale floral, spring-like background. Birds, other animals and celestial beings are depicted cavorting among trees and flowers. It is known as the Coronation Carpet because it “was stood upon by Edward VII for his coronation, and that is probably the last time someone stood on it wearing shoes,” Dr. Komaroff said.
After showing slides of Mughal tombs such as the beautiful Taj Mahal, Dr. Komaroff ended the lecture with a quote from an inscription on a pavilion in the Shalimar Bagh (or garden), built by Emperor Janhangir in Kashmir, India. The famous Persian couplet reads: “If there’s Paradise on Earth, it is here, it is here, it is here.”
Complementing the lecture were the beautiful tables created by our supremely talented Education co-chair Patty Reinstein. She composed the multi-colored moss-covered baskets heralding spring. These centerpieces were overflowing with mint, red geraniums, yellow marigolds, blue hyacinths and even strawberries! The baskets were later bought by the guests with the proceeds of the sales going to Virginia Robinson Gardens. The exquisite combination of the pale mint green tablecloths and contrasting lavender napkins further enhanced the lovely spring motif.
Carrying this colorful theme outdoors was the Middle Eastern feast catered by Joe Monteferante. A delicious saffron speckled rice with green pistachios and sugared orange rind called Shirin Polo, a mainstay at Persian weddings, was served. The salad was equally colorful with edible pansies and yellow and red nasturtiums strewn throughout. Lamb and lemon chicken, with delicious baklava, almond cakes and cookies completed the exotic meal.
Thank you to our fabulous co-chairs Patty Reinstein, Kerstin Royce and Ellen Lipson for giving us such a magnificent day to remember, and an outstanding season of lectures for us to enjoy!
Post by Linda Meadows
Friends of Robinson Gardens Board Member
Photos by Linda Meadows and Marcella Ruble
Friends of Robinson Gardens Board Members