The Double Vision of Paradise in Persian Painting

Persian Painting

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Here with a Loaf of Bread beneath the Bough,
A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse—and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness—
And Wilderness is Paradise enough.

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (1048-1131), translated by Edward FitzGerald (1859)

Imagine the scene: a cloistered garden, the shade of a tree, a book of poetry, a glass of wine, the fountain cooling the air. Beyond the walls are the sounds of the city, its bells and calls to prayer.

It is an image of a paradise most vividly seen in the poems and paintings of fourteenth and fifteenth-century Persia, modern-day Iran and Afghanistan, and the cities of Baghdad, Tabriz, Isfahan, Shiraz, and Herat. It appears as a world of stability and peace, but beyond the garden, emperors and princes, faiths and cultures, contend for power and control of the Silk Route from Xi’an in China to Venice in Europe. It is a world that knows great powers, both today and then – Genghis Kahn, Tamerlane, Mehmet the Conqueror, crusades, jihads, and today, wars on terror. Even in the fifteenth century, it remembered the conflicts of Alexander and Darius.

If the image of the garden seems unreal against this history, it may be because, as Sarareh Salehi tells us in her study, “Le paradis dans une peinture”, that the image of paradise is not real at all. It is the image of an otherworldly, spiritual paradise – a double vision, which allows Khayyam to find paradise in the wilderness.

This illustration from a fourteenth-century manuscript shows Genghis Khan and his three sons. The youngest, Tolui, was father of Möngke and Hulagou Khan, both rulers of Persia, and Kublai Khan of Yuan Dynasty China.

A History of Paradise

Let’s start with the word itself. As Salehi points out, “paradise,” in European languages, as well as the Arabic “firdows,” is Persian in origin. In “Persian poetry and painting, it always designates a contemplative spring garden”. Word and image predate, not only the arrival of Islam in Persia (633-654 CE), but also of Christianity. It is found in the older religions of the region such as Mithraism and even ancient Mesopotamian civilizations as well as in the traditions of calligraphy and manuscript illumination for the Sassanid Empire (242-642 CE).

Frontispiece of the Koran of Ibn Bawwab, signed by himself in 1001 (Chester Beatty Library, Dublin)
Maqâmât al-Harîrî, by Yahyâ ibn Mahmûd al-Wâsitî (Baghdad School).
Zafarnâme-ye Tîmurî (The Book of the Timur’s Victory) Šaraf al- Dîn ‘AliYazdî 1424-28).
Kamaluddin Behzad (1455 – 1535).
Bihzâd, Xamse de Nezâmî, Herat, 1493-94 (British Museum, London).

These traditions of the paradise as a garden continued and prospered alongside the Rashidun caliphate’s islamization of Persia and Islam’s prohibition of idolatry and suspicion of figurative art. It survived the fall of the caliphate to the Umayyad Empire in 661, and the fall of the Umayyads to the Abbasid Empire in 750. Under these empires, local traditions absorbed and adapted to influences from as far afield as China and Byzantium, the Eastern Roman Empire, now modern Turkey. This, the Golden Age of Islam, gave way to the Mongol Empire of Timur (or Tamerlane) and the Turkic Ottoman Empire in the fourteenth century. Meanwhile, the tradition of illumination reached its high point in the Herat School of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries and the Sufi artist Behzad, perhaps most widely known today through Orhan Pamuk’s story of the artists and coffeeshops of sixteenth-century Istanbul in My Name is Red (1998; translated 2001).

Yûsef et Zoleixâ, Bustân Sa’dî, Bihzâd, 1488 (National Library of Egypt, Cairo)
Calife au Hammâm, Bihzâd, (British Museum, London).
Dancing Dervishes, attributed to Bihzâd, Herat, 1490 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York).
Sultan Hussein Mirza Bayqara by Bihzad, 1490, (National Gallery, Stockholm and Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.).

The Trees

The East and the West belong to Allah. Whichever direction you turn, you will be turning to Allah. Allah is All-Embracing, All-Knowing.

Koran, 2:115

Salehi tells us that through the lens of Sufi mysticism, “the world that the West calls ‘real’ is only a metaphor for the superior spiritual world.” Emerging within Islam in the fourth century after Mohammed’s Hijrah to Mecca (the tenth century by the common calendar) Sufi thought contributed to both the Sunni and Shia strands of Islam, and came to dominate Persian literature and painting. It is therefore difficult to separate the mysticism from the artist’s symbolic illustration of literary themes. This is particularly the case when we look at the use of trees, both familiar and fantastical.

The most familiar examples of these symbolic trees are the trees of the original paradise, the Garden of Eden, specifically the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge. Salehi tells us that these trees are respectively the olive and fig trees. The olive tree has a particular symbolism in the Koran – there is a sura bearing its Arabic name, Zeytoûn – as a source of light, divine strength, guidance and wisdom as from it comes the oil which lights lamps illuminating both the books and paths of the chosen.

There is a third, highly symbolic tree. Positioned neither in the East nor the West, but at the centre of existence, its roots are in heaven while branches cast a shadow on earth. Most Muslim thinkers say this inverted olive tree symbolizes eternity. Like the olive tree more generally, it has a particular connection with wisdom and guidance, but this tree manifests the existence of God and shows that life comes from heaven on earth. The spiritual world (‘âlam-e malakût) is the eternal homeland of man. This upside-down tree represents the secret of existence: favour (feyz) from God (haqq/wâjib al-wojûd) in the hidden world (‘âlam-e qeyb) and its manifestation (tajaîi) in the world real (‘âlam-e šahâdat).

These symbolic trees are found in many contexts, but especially in the story of Alexander the Great as told in Ferdowsi’s great tenth-century epic, the Shahnameh, or the Book of Kings. In one illustration, produced by the Tabriz school during the reign of the Mongol Ilkhanids (centred on Tabriz from 1265 to 1306), Alexander is in conversation with a Talking Tree at the end of the world.

Alexander before the Talking Tree, Tabriz School, c.1330-36, (Freer Art Gallery, Washington DC.)

This tree has two trunks: men’s heads have grown on one and women’s heads on the other. The poem tells us that the heads of men speak in a fearful voice during the day, while the heads of women speak quietly at night. The male throne warns Alexander that he has already passed the happy part of his life and “that since he reigned for fourteen years, he must leave the royal throne”. After midnight, the women ask him not to give in to greed, which causes “great terror all over the world, harasses mankind and will kill kings.” Finally, they declare: “Death will come soon: you will die in a foreign land, with the foreigners waiting for you.”

Alexander before the Talking Tree, Shahnameh, Timurid era, Shiraz School, c. 1430, (Bodleian Library, Oxford University)

Another version of this painting, by the Shiraz school produced for Sultan Ibrâhîm (1394 to 1435), the Timurid governor and grandson of Tamerlane, shows Alexander’s perplexity and helplessness in the face of the mythical tree. This helplessness is felt even after his defeat of the Persian Emperor, Darius, when he became the governor of Persia. The blue colour in the background reveals the coldness of death: Alexander learns that he will soon die without having seen his homeland again.

Unlike the Tabriz school version, Alexander is not depicted on horseback but stands in front of the tree. He speaks with a gesture that is often found in Persian miniatures: finger placed on the chin to express his astonishment (or biting his fingers to express regret). This scene expresses the absolute powerlessness of man in the face of his destiny and the death from which no one, whatever his rank, can escape.

The Garden of Paradise

With the depiction of the tree, gardens and nature inevitably come; however, the painted garden is no more of this world than the fantastical trees encountered by Alexander. These symbolic gardens, while less horrific than the trees Alexander meets, are evocations of a celestial paradise and remind us, like Alexander, of our separation from paradise.

Homay and Homayoun, by Khaju-ye Kermani, the princess sees her lover by Jonaid, 1396 (British Library, London)

In these illustrations, the garden is always represented during the day and in spring, two typical and eternal moments. Sometimes man is shown as a successor to God (xalîfat Allâh), who must try to reach paradise, the place of the meeting of the friends of God (Awlîyâ’ Allâh), because the purpose of life is to attain the truth (Haqq).

This allegorical garden is an earthly realisation of paradise with a strong spiritual connection to a world beyond. As such it deserves a sublime representation, is filled with peace and light and is a sacred place where flowers and branches pray. The brilliant and supernatural light that envelops Persian painting is the symbol of the radiant divine essence. This essence is understood to be manifest in the art of illumination itself and the colour turquoise, composed of blue and green, symbolises the spiritual, infinite and sacred space of divine unity.


Beyond the tree and the garden, a larger nature stands in testimony to the writers’ and artists’ wonder at creation and their adoration of its creator.

Shahnama, Rustam sleeps in the Forest 1494 (British Library, London)

Both nature and spring in particular are ever-present in Persian literature and its highly detailed descriptions are embodied in painting. Salehi tells us that the painter adjusts his work to the poetic tradition, “sensitive to nature … and to God as its creator, it is flawless and beautiful. This is how the ground, naturally dark, becomes radiant in Persian painting.” Here birds pray and branches and flowers bow down suggesting that nature itself is the best place to pray.

The wheel of fortune is beautiful with its twinkling stars,
Everything that exists in the firmament has its image on earth.

The manifestation of truth in different forms and the relationship between the creator and his creatures are inspiration for Sufi thoughts. Indeed, unity with all creation speaks of the unity of existence (wahdat-e wojûd), and the idea that the divine is to be found in the smallest of nature’s elements. In the words of the thirteenth-century poet Sa’dî:

The leaf of the green trees is under the eyes of the wise man
Each of its leaves is a notebook to know the Creator

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This post is heavily based on Sarareh Saheli’s “Le paradis dans une peinture”, given at the Maison des Orientalistes, Paris, 16 November 2017. The quotations at the heads of sections are selected by Sam Wood. Commentary relating to them, the term “double vision” and the connections drawn between the moment of Persian painting and our present are his understanding. The views and errors in this are Sam Wood’s, not Saheli’s.