By: Rebecca Reeve
With its origins in the arid climate of the Arabian Peninsula, it is no wonder that the Islamic world was fascinated by plants throughout history. Because the land could not sustain much plant life it became a task to bring vegetation into everyday life. Even when Islam expanded into regions that were not arid and had an abundance of plants, the desire to use plant motifs in art and architecture remained. Through manuscripts, ceramics, decorative arts and architecture, artists found ways to incorporate flora into the culture. Apart from their aesthetic beauty, plants also hold an important place in Islamic life through their association with Paradise and practical uses in medicine.
Because of the climate in the Arabian Peninsula, “Muslims have always appreciated the soothing impact of flowing water, the occasional greenery of isolated oases or indeed the colorful vegetation of artificially created walled gardens” (Echoes of Paradise). Artists looked to this love of plants and water as inspiration and used vegetal motifs in various art forms. These artists were also inspired, not only by nature itself but, by other cultures such as the the Byzantine and Sasanian empires (Department of Islamic Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art). The pillars from the Church of Saint Polyeuktos in Constantinople, shows the use of plants in architecture, combined with Sasanian artistic motifs and was also commissioned by a member of the Byzantine court (Williams). It was not until the development of the arabesque, a vegetal abstraction of interweaving lines, during the medieval period that Islamic artists developed their own vegetal motif (Department of Islamic Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art).
Religion played a particularly important role in the Islamic love of plants for there were many references to the gardens of Paradise in the Quran, specifically “the fountains, flowing waters and perfect temperate climate” (Clark, 23). The gardens of Paradise were discussed as a wonderful reprieve from the hot desert climate. Gardens and their pleasures were thought to be “a direct symbol of God’s mercy” (Clark, 24). Most of the visual depictions of the Paradise garden were abstracted depictions of general gardens, alluding to Paradise. There is, however, one, probable, representation of Paradise found in the mosaics of the Great Mosque of Damascus.
The Great Mosque of Damascus was built by the Umayyad Caliph al-Walid in Damascus. The mosaics within the mosque, attributed to Byzantine workers, “cover the prayer hall, the inner side of the perimeter walls and the court facades,” and depict “flowing rivers, fantastic houses, and richly foliate trees of variegated greens” all on a golden background (Great Mosque). The vibrant greens, in addition to gold mosaic in the background of the entirety of the composition, evoke a sense of lushness that one imagines would be in the gardens of paradise. The ornate buildings with their various pavilions near the flowing river and highly decorated columns create an idealized world. Inscriptions found throughout the building discuss the gardens of Paradise, leading scholars such as Finbar Flood to posit that these mosaics were direct representations of the gardens of Paradise as described in the Quran (Flood). Through the detailed depiction of a beautiful, natural environment, the artists that laid these mosaics demonstrated the importance of gardens, and by association, plants, in Islamic culture.
As stated earlier, the mosaics in the Great Mosque of Damascus are an exception to the typical depiction of gardens in Islamic art. Normally artists only alluded to the gardens of Paradise without making explicit references to it through inscriptions. Therefore, depictions of gardens became a popular motif among Islamic artists that spanned various art forms. Textiles, specifically carpets, often showed abstracted versions of gardens. The Garden Carpet from Iran, currently in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, depicts one of the most typical layouts of the Islamic garden, the four-fold garden known as the Chahar Bagh.
The four-fold garden incorporated many important factors of Islamic religion and culture. The number four was significant for it “encompases the four cardinal directions, the four elements and the four seasons” (Clark, 29). Additionally, when Muhammad discusses his ascent to heaven he “speaks of four rivers: one of water, one of milk, one of honey and one of wine” (Clark, 29). Within the Garden Carpet, the composition of the textile is divided symmetrically across the vertical and horizontal axis, leading to four equal divisions of the carpet, creating a four-fold garden. The four water channels are seen in the vertical green line and the horizontal orange line that run through the carpet, divided only by a central rectangle that is likely an allusion to the pavilions often found at the merging of the vertical and horizontal rivers. Within physical gardens, these four water channels provided much needed irrigation for straight lines were efficient in distributing water to the plants. The complex irrigation systems created by Islamic engineers allowed for the transportation of water throughout not only the gardens but also the dry landscape as well. This could “transform the desert from wasteland… to a prosperous landscape of small agricultural estates that gave forth enough food to sustain permanent residential communities” (Ruggles, 14). These irrigation systems were necessary to sustain Islamic cities but also provided opportunities to manipulate the natural environment for aesthetic pleasure through gardens.
With the complex system of irrigation required to build gardens, it is understandable that these environments were so revered in Islamic culture. This engineering feat allowed for plants to flourish in areas where plant life was unsustainable. That is one of the main reasons why gardens had a significant religious aspect to them.
Gardens were also able to be enjoyed in the secular realm. It was expensive to maintain gardens so they were therefore enjoyed especially by the rulers and court. As seen in Garden Gathering from 17th century Iran, currently on view in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, gardens provided an environment for pleasure in the Islamic world. As the lounging women exhibit, gardens were a place of relaxation. The lavish garments of the women lounging in the garden demonstrate their wealth, specifically the central figure that is sprawled out on a cushion, being waited on by the other women. Through the inclusion of these wealthy women and many of their beautiful vases, seen in the grass, this work shows the importance and prestige that was associated with gardens.
While currently housed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the original location of these tiles speaks to the artistic exchange that occurred between gardens and art objects. These panels would most likely have been found on the wall of a garden pavilion, providing a mirror to the surrounding environment (Garden Gathering). The mirror-like quality in the display of the work is enhanced by the detail given to the trees and each individual flower found throughout the grass. The trees and various plants in this image are colored in a bright blue that, while not naturalistic, evokes a decorative aspect of the tiles and helps to unify the colors of the piece. Additionally, each individual flower is distinguished from the rest and there is some semblance of anatomical exactitude in the way in which each of the plants was painted. This shows the attention to detail that Islamic artists gave to plants and their inspiration from the natural world.
Gardens are perhaps the most obvious demonstration of the Islamic love for plants. Evoking an otherworldly sense of serenity and beauty, gardens allowed for rest, relaxation, and contemplations of Allah’s gifts of plants. Outside of the garden, however, plants did not have a religious significance (Vegetal Patterns). Instead, flowers and plants were appreciated throughout art and architecture for their aesthetic and medicinal qualities because the visual beauty found in plants and plant motifs translated well to other artistic media.
Architecture was an area which was greatly inspired by plants and demonstrated the high status given to plants in Islamic culture: “when flowers [were] not depicted naturalistically in Islamic art, they [were] often used in more or less fantastic arrangements intended to enhance the surface of a building or an artifact” (Echoes of Paradise). Most of the plant motifs used in Islamic art were inherited from other cultures and from nature itself: “Islamic designers [seemed] to have an endless and indigenous appetite for exploring the huge range of design possibilities offered by the natural variety in plant life” (Victoria and Albert Museum). Natural variety within plants was aided by the rise in trade routes throughout the Islamic world and beyond, leading to a prosperous exchange of different plant types (Ruggles, 29).
The Capital from Madinat al-Zahra, just outside of Córdoba, Spain, currently in the Victoria and Albert Museum, exemplifies the use of plant motifs in architecture and the influence that other cultures and nature had over Islamic architecture. Three levels of leaves are seen, evoking the tri-leveled acanthus leaves that were characteristic of Corinthian capitals. However, this capital shows the highly stylized version of the Corinthian capital typically found in Islamic architecture. The interweaving lines allude to vines along with the leaves that protrude from the general structure. Characteristic of Islamic architecture, holes were drilled into the column, creating a surface with multiple levels. Usage of plant motifs in architecture imitated this same type of usage in Roman capitals and further surrounded people with plant motifs.
The importance of plants in Islamic culture was exhibited not only in art, but also in medicine. Plant related texts became popular among the ruling class after crops, such as sugar-cane and cotton, were used as a taxable commodity (Ruggles, 29). Books on the science of agriculture became popular including calendars and almanacs that informed people of when to plant certain crops or flowers. These texts were followed by botanical dictionaries and treatises that gave accounts of various plants and their practical uses (Ruggles, 29). Dioscorides’s De Materia Medica is perhaps the most famous of these treatises.
Pedanius Dioscorides served as a physician in the Roman legions and “traveled widely collecting drugs and plants” (Riddle, 1). His encyclopedia on plants and their medical uses for human health was originally written in Greek and later translated into many languages including Arabic, as seen in the Folio from the De Materia Medica of Dioscorides from the 13th century Iraq, currently in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Each page from the De Materia Medica includes the name of the plant, a basic description of its uses, and a visual representation of the plant. Most of the pages include accurate depictions of the plants but some plants are unidentifiable based on the illustrations. Much of this visual inaccuracy was due to the way in which manuscripts were produced at that time: “A text was produced for oral delivery at first and then, if important and valuable enough, it would be copied down” (Ruggles, 31). Additionally, there was difficulty for the Arabic translators and artists who were transcribing the treatise. They had to solely rely on second hand depictions of the plants and then copy them into a new manuscript. Artistic liberties within the copied plant diagrams lead to confusion on the true appearance of many of the plants.
As seen in this folio, this plant, called Thamt, is depicted in such a way that it includes many of the typical characteristics of Islamic art. The plant is relatively symmetrical around the vertical axis and shown in blocks of red, yellow, and green. The inclusion of the painted image of the plant creates a juxtaposition of the utility of the informative inscription and the decorative nature of the illustration. This allows the viewer to learn from the manuscript while also appreciating its beauty.
The beauty and detail found in the images of the plants, along with the information about their medical uses, is important on each page of the De Materia Medica. While this page, along with many others in the treatise describe the many uses of the plants, Dioscorides also wrote about important medical processes, such as the method of creating sour wine which was thought to be beneficial to digestion. Although Dioscorides wrote in Greek, the importance of his text is evident in the fact that it was translated into Arabic. The need for a translated version of the treatise shows the desire to learn more about plants and their uses in the Islamic world. In this way, Disocorides’s De Materia Medica, in its translated form, shows the importance of plants to Islamic culture.
The importance of plants permeated many levels of Islamic culture. Plants were revered for their healing properties, as seen in the De Materia Medica of Dioscorides. They were also symbolically important in religion for it was a miracle that vegetation could grow and flourish in such dry climates. Additionally, the importance of plants affected various Islamic art forms ranging from mosaics in the Great Mosque of Damascus, ceramics in the tiles from the Garden Gathering, textiles, as seen in the Garden Carpet, architecture in the Capital and manuscripts through the Folio. Through the use of plant motifs in all of these art forms, the pivotal role that plants played in Islamic culture is apparent.
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