The designs are from Work in the Garden.
Three of the Names in the next part of the series – Al-Basir (Seer), Al-Khabir (All-Aware), and Ar-Raqib (Watchful) – are based on the great stellated dodecahedron. These Names remind me of the power of stars, but with a little twist. We view the stars primarily as sources of light, sending energy far across the universe, and I started to wonder if the stars can perceive all that which their light touches. And I started considering, what if they see in the process of giving light? So the source of light becomes also a metaphor for seeing.
And with how much fun the grinding is, I thought I’d share a wonderful slide show of a short part of the process:
Now, only 174 more little triangles to grind!
Imagery of the Celestial Garden reminds us that each of us, and everything in the universe, are vitally and intricately connected.
All of us are part of something bigger.
We will never see the whole picture – the edges are too far from our view, we can’t even see the middle, and try as hard as we can we are unable to see most of our own little patch.
But each of us is an important part of that bigger thing which stretches so far beyond our imagining. And we are – each one of us – a vital part. Otherwise we wouldn’t be here at all.
The unfolding, interlacing, intricate designs of Celestial Garden patterns go on forever, and remind us not just of the infinite complexity and continuation of the Creator’s pattern, but of our own inextricable part within it.
We may at times feel lost within the creation, but we are never lost to the Creator.
There are three aspects to the Celestial Garden which make it resonate as a beautiful symbol of hope.
There is something about planting and tending a vegetable plant, then eating the crop you raised yourself. The process allows us to play an active, inside role in the cycle of life.
There is the knowledge that all of us, and every thing in the universe, are vitally and inextricably connected.
The garden is also a metaphor for abundance and fecundity in the Celestial realm. Mortal life is temporary and fleeting, but life in Paradise is lush and vibrant. In Islam this imagery is especially significant considering the area in which the Revelation was received.
The Arabian peninsula is one of the largest inhabited areas on the planet in which no significant natural bodies of water survive all year round, and the extreme rarity of life-giving oases were tangible miracles of Providence. Lush and succulent plants, cool flowing water, and similar vibrant imagery helped propound the concept that Paradise is a world of beauty and abundance, profoundly removed from the everyday, ordinary life of the desert-dwelling nomad.
Poets described the growth of these preternatural Platonic gardens and artists showed it – the mosaic scenes of the Great Umayyad Mosque in Damascus are imaginal windows into wonderful vistas of the eternal oases in Heaven. The Dome of the Rock – built as a reverent shelter for a stone spiritual significant to all the Children of the Book – holds stylized vines and flowers, celebrating vibrant growth. Plates and carpets, homes and mosques, were decorated with the delicate, intricate, colorful designs of fantastic plants, trees, and flowers.
As we move towards the hot and sticky parts of summer, it is a wonderful image to hold in one’s heart.
Some more process images for garden panels – learn a little more about Persian Gardens here.
A few process photos of panels I’m working on.
One of my volunteering “gigs” is as a pastoral volunteer for art transportation. That sounds really, really odd but if you look hard enough, you can find fun ways to volunteer in almost any field. A minister friend of mine is also a gallery director for a private religious school, and twice a year he taps me (his interfaith minister friend) to travel and pick up or deliver works of art for various religious exhibits. On each of these excursions (we call them “Pastoral Volunteer Inspired Beauty Retrievals” – technically that’s what they are, but saying that when someone asks our business makes us sound important) we visit the small towns and landmarks we drive through, check out the antiques shops (we’re both sculptors and you find lots of cool stuff), and sample the local cuisine. On one such trip we checked out the incredible Colorado River. The dock we visited was smack dab in the middle of a desert wasteland – you turn off the highway, drive through dried out and dead tunnels of rock, then suddenly you turn a corner and life opens around you. It was astounding. The river brought growth, greenery, and animals to what otherwise is a starkly majestic wasteland. I had been thinking about As-Salam for a while trying to find just the right metaphor, and here it was – I went upstream of the little park area and waded into the current to take a sample; after the trip I alchemically prepared the small amount of water and the sculpture seemed to design itself.
When Mohammed received the revelations which became the Qur’an, the Arabian Peninsula was one of the largest inhabited areas in the world without natural bodies of water which lasted the entire year. Bereft of much of the plant and animal life plentiful in much of the rest of the world, Mohammed communicated the richness and vibrancy of Paradise through imagery he felt his listeners could appreciate – lush and succulent growth, the tinkling sounds of a babbling brook, the cool relief of an eternally plentiful spring. And these images still mark a great deal of what we see in Islamic art today – endless and vibrant plant forms, and rich hues of blues and greens. When I saw how much an effect the Colorado River had on the desert in its immediate vicinity, those symbolic representations of Paradise rushed into my consciousness.
The Name itself, As-Salam, is also interesting to me for a couple reasons. Hebrew and Arabic are languages very closely linked, and we hear the echo of the traditional Hebrew benediction, Shalom, in this Name for Deity. The most common translation is “Peace”, and the Arabic variant is also part of a traditional benediction, “ah salam a-laikum” (I can’t write Arabic – yet – so this is as close as I can get phonetically). An imam friend translated this to me as “may the Peace of the Lord and His blessings be upon you”; interestingly, this is also the most common benediction among the laity of many churches I’ve visited. As part of a worshipful life, the faithful seem to enjoy pronouncing peace on each other – regardless of their path of faith or language they speak. How cool is that?
As I was considering these things, the design of a sort of battery (with radiating fins like Sustainer) came. We use hydro-electric power quite a bit today, but long before this was a matter of course for most of the modern world, the power of Peace was recognized in many religions and among many thinkers (Mother Theresa, the Dali Lama, and Mohandas Ghandi are recent heroes which come to mind). Peace is a real power, perhaps not for light bulbs and microwave ovens, but it has changed the entire world many, many times. Holding sacred peace in the heart helps people through the most horrendous experiences and horrific circumstances, and committing to peace has rebuilt families and neighborhoods all over the world.
The designs etched into the glass panels are interlocking rings on one side of each fin, and an expanding star on the other, all growing out from the tiny vial of water from the Colorado. These things came to mind as I was thinking about Jesus teaching the woman at the well in the New Testament, and I believe are fitting. The Living Water from Deity is an odd thing – the more it is given away, the more it grows inside the giver. The peace this Names refers to is the same; the more we give and radiate peace to those around us, the more this peace we’re giving away grows inside ourselves. I think that is pretty amazing.
This sculpture is now part of the permanent collection of the Mall Area Religious Council – an organization in the Mall of America area committed only to building friendships and peace among people of all faiths, languages, and beliefs. Their only excuse for being is to find ways to show how much they like each other – what a wonderful motivation.
Holiness brings to mind purity, commitment, and devotion. From a human perspective, I appreciate how these qualities are expressed – but how are these qualities shown from a Divine perspective?
In 99 Names traditions, the awareness is that these are not really names as we perceive the word. They are traits or features of the Divine, called Names because that’s a relatively simple term. The Creator is the ultimate Source of whatever the specific trait is and is seen through all the permutations of that trait and its associations; by calling to mind the trait, dedicating ourselves to its perfect expression (or as close to perfect as we can get), and allowing the trait to fill our minds – somehow we are elevated. The infinite expansion of God’s mind is still far away, but we can get to a point where we can appreciate and open ourselves to the unfolding of that trait. A tiny window is made, and we can begin to see. As in Plato’s allegory of the cave, we are blinded at first and can only see shadows and reflections, but then we can see more – and the trait becomes part of our fabric.
With the trait of Holiness and Purity, I thought of these ideas as well as the concept that the Creator is the Originator of holiness and all its attendant permutations. The whole universe was created with the single-minded intent, devotion, and commitment to our ultimate well-being, by a Being of infinite capacity. How do we approach this? With words, it’s impossible – every word spoken hides all the others, and can bring us further from ultimate understanding. This is true, I imagine, for every made thing. But doing something without the limit of speaking (poetry, music, meditation, etc.), asking/calling for something beyond the capacity of the doer (Divine inspiration), can open the doors for an expanding awareness; it’s still not entirely adequate, but it’s better.
This is a reflection on the process of approaching – the layers of our experience give space to doorways for the path, and the occlusion our awareness lays over the Truth is part of the process of understanding. We are limited and temporal beings, but however inadequate we feel ourselves to be, the purity of our intent as we continue the journey – that’s what gives place for a union with the Divine.
Appreciation of the Infinite, I believe, is closest approximated by the open-ended process – because, quite simply, if it could be completely understood by a specific, limited act It would no longer be infinite. The open-ended process with a goal but no conclusion, the long life lived with intent and desire to commune with the Divine for example, becomes a simile itself for our comprehension of the limitless expanse of the Divine. As the Buddhists say, The journey is the destination.
This Name has been represented in English by “The Ruler”, “The King”, and “The Absolute Ruler”. I believe the idea behind this Name is a reminder that, regardless of how powerful an earthly ruler may be, the Creator is always greater. I’m reminded of the sonnet “Ozymandias” by Percy Bysshe Shelley – the accomplishments of an all-powerful ruler is reduced to dust and something less than a ghost. However great a king, conqueror, or emperor is, the one thing they cannot avoid is the reality that time passes, something which will never affect an Eternal Being.
The title means “Self-Ruling One,” which I though fit better than the other approximations because they all depend on our temporal perspective. The Divine Throne is represented by a suspended amber orb, actually a polished citrine sphere. Thrones usually are structures of incredible workmanship encrusted with gold and jewels, designed to over-awe whomever approaches – what could be greater, I thought, than using our sun to represent God’s throne? Something so amazing we can’t even look at it directly? Tying the citrine in the center of the piece symbolizes the sun, and the panels covered with stylized images of clouds represent the sky.
Also, I was considering how we approach the Ultimate Ruler – is it through leagues of self-important bureaucrats and secretaries, as seems to be the case with so many leaders in our history? No. God is the greatest and most powerful Ruler of all, yet there is no endless system of bureaucracy to wade through in our approach – we visit with the most powerful Being in the universe whenever we offer a heartfelt prayer. The veils between ourselves and the Eternal are ones we weave ourselves through lack of understanding, pride, or an unwillingness to do the right thing. The veils in the sculpture are flimsy and transparent, just like the ones we erect (regardless of how substantial we think they are), and all are anchored only to the ground. Just as the barriers we perceive between ourselves and the Eternal Presence are never made by Him – all who approach the Divine with a pure heart and real intent, are welcomed warmly into His presence. The Greatest King in the universe is always eager for an honest word from any of His subjects.
There have been a number of documentaries in the last several years exploring standards of beauty around the world. Regardless of the technological level of the people studied or their connections with the rest of the world, researchers found that people responded most favorably to human features with Golden Section proportions – the same proportions we see all the time in classical Greek and Roman sculpture.
It is also interesting that the same proportions used for sacred architecture keep showing up all around the world. I wonder why this is, and I’ve heard lots of theories (the Atlantean Diospora is one of the coolest). However, I think the answer is a little more basic.
Human beings are hardwired to appreciate beauty. I’m not talking about manufactured expectations of beauty like the elongated forms so popular in the fashion industry, I’m talking about the gut-level reaction most of us get when we see something like Yosemite or Yellowstone for the first time, or Michelangelo’s Pieta. When Sultan Mehmed II first stepped foot into the Hagia Sophia, he reportedly was so impacted by its beauty he commanded his soldiers to protect it from looters – and this beautiful Christian church has influenced sacred Muslim architecture ever since.
This sculpture is based on the use of the Golden Ratio brought into 3D, with a dried pomegranate suspended in the center. The colors blue and green with the overlapping patterns of leaves and flowers are indicative of Paradise, and the pomegranate has been used to represent the fruit of knowledge in many ancient cultures. The intersecting planes are cut with holes so we can see all the way – but as we shift our perspective the view changes, some things are revealed and others hidden. And the structure is tied with hemp as a recognition of the role books have in the process of sharing and learning, and in particular the Qur’an. Knowledge is vital to us as human beings, but knowledge without the guiding structure and awareness of beauty is a sad and desperate thing.
When we see something truly beautiful and we find ourselves resonating to it, I believe this was put into us as a guide – not only to find those things which lead us to become better individuals, but help us to appreciate the Source of all beauty, the Creator. God can literally do anything He wants, and He chose to make us so we enjoy beauty.
How cool is that?