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The Visual Representation of Heavens and Paradise in Medieval Islamic Culture

Igor Demchenko, State Institute of Art Research, Moscow, Russia, Junior Fellow 2005–2006

The dream of heavens and paradise was an important motivating factor for believers in the medieval Islamic world. In the Western tradition of Islamic studies, scholars traditionally paid more attention to the texts describing the future life of the righteous. In my project at Dumbarton Oaks, I explored the visual image of paradise in pre-modern Islamic culture. Under the term visual image I understand a generalized image of a material object, or a number of objects, that appears in the mind of a person (in my case in the mind of a medieval Muslim believer) in response to a certain idea.

The question that allowed me to shed new light on the problem of reconstructing the visual idea of Islamic paradise was whether all Muslims had the same idea of the material aspects of paradise. When I analyzed medieval eschatological texts, I took into account social differences between military or landed aristocracy and the mass of city-dwellers; and this approach brought interesting results. In general, I can say that the idea of paradise itself was produced (and reproduced) by and for city-dwellers; and it deeply correlated with the socioeconomic needs of this group. Gradually it was accepted by other layers of society including the military and landed nobility.

Evidence from medieval panegyric poetry shows that gardens were constantly compared with paradise, and so the image of real gardens could influence the visual idea of paradise in the consciousness of the nobility. At the same time, I found that there was a substantial difference between depictions of luxurious gardens and representations of paradise in medieval Islamic miniatures that were created by artists who obviously came from the lower layers of society. Muslim painters used special combinations of visual elements to depict large-scale formal gardens. The most important of such elements was a regular basin together with straight channels. The idea of a garden could also be transmitted by painting enclosure walls or a garden pavilion. Paradise was usually visualized not as a large-scale regular garden but as a piece of abundant nature. Comparative study of depictions of real gardens and abodes of paradise leads me to the conclusion that the traditional regular gardens of the nobility played a minor role in the formation of the visual image of paradise in the consciousness of city-dwellers.

The research conducted at Dumbarton Oaks allowed me to take the next step in clarifying the causes of the appeal of Islam to proselytes and relations between art and religion in the medieval Islamic world.