The Tree of Life

The Tree of Life  
            Double-page illuminations for Chapter V of "An Imaginary Book"   

#1   The Tree of Life   (Light Globe Symmetrical Photograph)  

click on the images to enlarge

This vertical symmetrical photograph above entitled The Tree of Life was made quite spontaneously as I was working on a small series of related symmetrical photographs inspired by three globe shaped lights I saw suspended in some trees at an outdoor party.  Two wonderful young people were celebrating their union and life commitment to each other.  

There are four other images in this small project; they can be seen below, following the texts.  

The Tree of Life image is the only vertical photograph in the entire series of projects entitled "An Imaginary Book" and it is also a very important symbol in the Islamic tradition, as the texts below will explain in detail.  As such the arrival of this symmetrical photograph within my creative process feels quite auspicious.  It followed quickly after the completion of the fourth project in the series, Crystalline Paradise, and came just weeks before the Infinite Beauty project which most probably is the concluding "chapter" of the "book."

Admittedly, The Tree of Life image and its four other related images make for an odd "chapter" but understood within its larger context, and especially with the texts provided below, it must to be seen as an integral part of "An Imaginary Book."  The Tree of Life is chapter five, and Infinite Beauty is chapter six of "An Imaginary Book."  

I encourage you to read the Preface to "An Imaginary Book" and visit the other five projects; all are available at this one link:"An Imaginary Book": The Complete Collection of Projects. 

Steven D. Foster 

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Texts regarding the symbolism of "The Tree of Life"
I am providing here a selection of excerpts from the writings of various Islamic scholars regarding the significance of The Tree of Life as a major archetypal Islamic symbol.  Some of the quotes can be found in their larger scholarly contexts on my webpage Sacred Art, Sacred Knowledge.  The four other symmetrical photographs in the Tree of Life project follow the texts.


Rene Guenon: The Symbolism of the Cross, "The Tree in the Midst"
The "Tree in the Midst' is one of the numerous symbols of the 'World Axis'.  It is therefore the vertical line of the cross, which represents the axis, that we must consider here.  This line forms the trunk of the tree, whereas the horizontal line forms its branches.  The tree stands at the center of the world, or rather of a world, that is, of a domain in which a state of existence, such as the human state, is developed.  In biblical symbolism, for example, the 'Tree of Life', planted in the midst of the Terrestrial Paradise, represents the center of our world.  

There was another tree which plays a no less important role, namely the 'Tree of the Knowledge of good and evil' which is characterized by duality. . . . Once it is transcended there can no longer be any question of good or evil.  The same cannot be said of the 'Tree of Life' which in its function as the 'World Axis' essentially implies unity.  The 'Tree of Knowledge' appears to Adam only at the very moment of the 'Fall', since it is then that he becomes 'knowing of good and evil'.  It is then that he finds himself driven from the center which is the place of the primal unity to which the Tree of Life corresponds.  . . . This center has become inaccessible to fallen man, who has lost the 'sense of eternity,' which is also the 'sense of unity';  to return to the center by the restoration of the primordial state, and to reach the 'Tree of Life', is to regain the 'sense of eternity'.

Moreover, we know that the cross of Christ [the central cross of three crosses] is itself symbolically identified with the 'Tree of Life'.  

In Chinese symbolism sometimes we find a single tree with its branches dividing and rejoining, or there may be two trees having the same root and likewise joined by their branches.  They depict the process of universal manifestation: everything starts from unity and returns to unity.

To return to the representation of the 'Terrestrial Paradise': from its center, that is, from the very food of the 'Tree of Life', spring four rivers flowing toward the four cardinal points and thus tracing the horizontal cross on the surface of the terrestrial world, that is to say on the plane that corresponds to the domain of the human state.  These four rivers which issue from a single source corresponding to primordial either, divide into four parts (corresponding to the  four phases of a cyclic development) the circular precinct of the 'Terrestrial Paradise', which can be regarded as the horizontal section of the spherical form representing the Universe.  

It is noteworthy that in the symbolism of the Apocalypse this tree bears twelve fruits . . . twelve forms of the sun which will appear simultaneously at the end of the cycle, thus re-entering into the essential unity of their common nature, for they are so many manifestations of one single indivisible essence which corresponds to the one essence of the 'Tree of Life' itself.  Moreover, in various traditions, an image of the sun is often linked with that of a tree, as though the sun were the fruit of the 'World Tree'; it leaves the tree at the beginning of the cycle and comes back to alight on it again at the end.  . . . this is related to the twelve signs of the zodiac or the twelve months of the year.  [Bold emphasis mine.]


Martin Lings: Symbol and Archetype:  
It is the function of sacred art in general to be a vehicle for the Divine Presence; and it follows from what has already been said that the Islamic artist will conceive this function not as a "capturing" of the Presence but rather as a "liberation" of its mysterious Totality from the deceptive prison of appearances.

The first sacred art of all - in as much as it was for man the first earthly vehicle of Divine Presence, was nature itself; and it is, moreover, the Qur'an which draws the artist's attention to this primordial "solution".   There are few things that evoke more immediately the idea of perfection than a tree which has had time and space to achieve fullness of growth; and in virtue of the outward and upward pointing of its branches, it is not a closed perfection but an open one.  The Qur'an uses this very symbol itself:

A good word is as a good tree, its root firm, its branches in heaven, giving its fruits at every due season by the leave of its Lord.  And God coineth similitudes for men that they may remember. (XIV:24-25)

The Qur'an uses the symbol of the tree to point a way for the illuminator, telling him how to set free from the finite it's Infinite Presence.  One of the most fundamental ornaments of  Qur'an illumination is aboral, namely the palmette, or "little tree" which often extends a surah heading into the outer margin of the page and points horizontally towards the paper's edge.  The surah palmette can be upward pointing as well which corresponds to the marginal "tree of life" in the Qur'an manuscripts of Andalusia and North West Africa.   [You can click on the image below  to enlarge it.]    

But the ascending movements of return cannot be considered independently of the original descent.  The Quranic text is equally insistent upon both movements.  In Arabic the word for revelation, tanzil, means literally "a sending down"; and the reader is again and again reminded that what he is reading is no less than a Divine Message sent down directly to the Prophet.

There is one verse in the Qur'an in which the tree may be said to point in the direction of descent.  

If all the trees in the earth were pens, and if the sea eked out by seven seas were ink, the Words of God could not be written out to the end (XXXI:27)

The verse tells us, generally speaking, that earthly things are as nothing compared with what they symbolize; but at the same time it implies inescapably that the tree, for the purpose of representing heavenly implements of transcription, is a supreme symbol.  One of the chapters of the Qur'an is named after the Celestial Pen.

The Prophet himself said, "The first thing God created was the pen.  He created the tablet and said to the pen "Write!"  And the pen replied, "What shall I write?"  He said, "Write My knowledge of My creation till the day of resurrection".  Then the pen traced what had been ordained."

The verse of the tree speaks of "its branches in Heaven".  The palmette in the margin is as near to a direct illustration as this art will allow.  In other words, it is a reminder that the reading or chanting of the Qur'an is the virtual starting point for limitless vibration, a wave that ultimately breaks on the shore of Eternity; and it is above all that shore that is signified by the margin, towards which all the movement of the painting, in palmette, finial, crenellation and flow of arabesque is directed. 

Another symbol which expresses both perfection and infinitude, and which is intimately, though not apparently, related to the "tree" is the rayed sun.  Again and again the Qur'an refers to itself as light or as being radiant with light; and many periods of Qur'an illumination can give us examples of marginal verse counts inscribed in circles whose circumferences are rayed or scalloped.  The solar roundels, or "little sun" is used also of stellar ornaments, occasionally replace the rosettes which divide the verses; and the rosettes themselves are often made luminous with gold.

Sometimes the symbol of light is directly combined with that of the tree, as when a solar roundel figures inside the surah palmette, or when the palmette itself is rounded or rayed, with its lobe replace by an outward pointing finial.

Revelation is not only a shining of light from the next world, but it also throws its light towards the next world by way of guidance.

Related in more ways than one to the tree are the arabesques with which the palmettes, the roundels, and other marginal ornaments are filled.   Being vineal rather than aboreal, the arabesque does not by its nature point out a way.  In virtue of its elusiveness, it constitutes in itself a mysterious and supraformal presence.  It is also, like a tree, a vital presence and, where it is a background for the script, it serves to heighten the effect of the letters as vehicles of the Living Word.  Moreover, as a portrayal of rhythm, by its constant repetition of the same motives, in particular the small palmette, at reqular intervals, it suggests rhythmic Qur'an recitations, which take place, we are told, not only on earth but throughout all the degrees of the universe.  [Martin Lings:  Symbol & Archetype]


Seyyed Hossein Nasr: Knowledge and the Sacred   Regarding traditional man and sacred knowledge, Nasr writes:   The journey to the spiritual Orient by the person in quest of sacred knowledge is the journey to the Tree of Life, to that tree whose fruit bore for man the unitive knowledge from which he became deprived upon tasting the fruit of the Tree of Good and Evil or separative knowledge.


Laleh Bakhtiar: Sufi: Expressions of the Mystic Quest  In the following excerpts, Bakhtiar writes about how Islamic architecture, Islamic gardens, carpet designs, Qur'an illustration and poetry have used the imagery of the Celestial Garden of Paradise, as revealed in the Qur'an.  For the Sufi, every element in the Celestial Garden is a symbol for their spiritual-psychological process or spiritual journey of uniting with God:

The four Gardens described in the Qur'an are interpreted esoterically as four stages through which the mystic travels on the inward journey.  The four gardens are called the Garden of the Soul, the Garden of the Heart, the Garden of the Spirit, and the Garden of Essence. . . 

When the mystic enters the Garden of the Heart he finds that it contains a fountain, water which flows, a tree and fruit of this tree.  The fountain is the Fountain of Life or Immortality.  By drinking of this fountain, the mystic attains to the Eye of Certainty, that is, reaches direct contact with the Spirit; for the water of this fountain originates from the Garden of the Spirit.  

The water which flows in this garden is the Intellect, knowledge which has been illuminated by revelation.  Having left reason behind, which relates to the sensible world, the mystic's soul is fed by the Intellect which rules the intelligible or spiritual world.

The tree in this garden is the Tree of Life or Immortality: its fruits are universal meanings which relate all forms and images to the inner sameness existing within all things.  Universal meanings may be taken by the mystic, however, only when there has been a phenomenal image, an imprint upon the soul.

In the section entitled Cosmological Symbols Laleh Bakhtiar writes the following regarding the Cosmic Tree or Tuba: Tuba, in its macrocosmic form grows at the uppermost limits of the universe.  In its microcosmic form, its cultivation depend upon the mystic.  In a tradition of the Prophet, it is related that "the Tuba is a tree in Paradise.  God planted it with His own hand and breathed His spirit into it."

Ibn 'Arabi [the Great Sufic mystic] describes this symbol in both its forms.  In its macrocosmic aspect, it is associated with the Cosmic Mountain on top of which the Cosmic Tree grows.  The whole of the cosmos is seen as a tree, the Tree of Knowledge, which has grown from the seed of the Divine Command, "Be".  The Tree has sent down its roots, sent up its trunk, and spread out its branches, so that this world, the world of Symbols, and the world of Archetypes, are all contained by this Tree. 

As the Tree is manifest in a macrocosmic aspect, so it is hidden in the microcosmic form.  It is the symbol of wisdom which, through roots in meditation, bears fruit of the Spirit. 


Samer Akkach: Cosmology and Architecture in Premodern IslamAn Architectural Reading of Mystical Ideas  (2005).   
Kun and Kawn 
Kun (Be!) was God's first uttered word, and Kawn (the world) was the immediate outcome of this utterence.  [The great Sufi mystic] Ibn 'Arabi 's treatise 'The Tree of Being' is a fascinating exposition on his mystical reflections on the relationship between the command and the outcome, the word and the world.  Among the poetic imageries he constructs is the correspondence between the spatial structure of the human presence (the three dimensional cross) and the "tree" of realities that grows from the "seed" of the divine word Kun.  In Sufi terminology "tree" is defined as "the Universal Man who governs the structure of the Universal Body."  The Sufis identify the tree with the Universal Man because both embody the pattern of the three-dimensional cross, which expresses notions of both verticality and opposition.  The seed whence the seed grows corresponds to the center, the heart of Universal Man, which is the place where all complements are untied and all opposites are reconciled.  Ibn'Arabi writes:  "I have looked at the universe and its design, at what was concealed and its inscription, and I saw that the whole universe (Kawn) was a tree, the root of whose light is from the seed 'Be!' (Kun)."  

[For more information regarding the cross, the center point, and more, click here.]

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The Four other Images

The Tree of Life is a surprising image.  It's unlike all the others in my "Imaginary Book" project in part because it is a vertical image, and in part because this symmetrical image, unlike all the others which are close to abstraction, became a stylized representational image of a tree.  It came spontaneously as I worked quickly, intuitively, on a small series of related images involving basically the same subject matter.  The five images total is the series is a kind of "variations on a theme."  Below are the other four images in the series.

Because symbolically The Tree of Life image has such an important place in the religious, and metaphysical archetypal world of Islam, and because of it's verticality, the four other images are not as impressive to me.  But certainly they are images with their own visual integrity and symbolic potentialities.  For example, because the Tree of Life image is vertically formatted, it's interesting to consider it's relationship in terms of format to the other four images which are all horizontal.   The five images together suggest a conjunction of opposites, that is to say, they form an imaginary cross.  

click on the images to enlarge

Because of the symbolism of the number twelve, the following quote bears repeating:
It is noteworthy that in the symbolism of the Apocalypse this tree bears twelve fruits . . . twelve forms of the sun which will appear simultaneously at the end of the cycle, thus re-entering into the essential unity of their common nature, for they are so many manifestations of one single indivisible essence which corresponds to the one essence of the 'Tree of Life' itself.  Moreover, in various traditions, an image of the sun is often linked with that of a tree, as though the sun were the fruit of the 'World Tree'; it leaves the tree at the beginning of the cycle and comes back to alight on it again at the end.  . . . this is related to the twelve signs of the zodiac or the twelve months of the year.  [emphasis mine]


#2   "Tree of Life" series Symmetrical Photograph: 
Six joined pairs of light globes in a row  19x25"

In the image #2 above we see six vertical sets of two light globes connected by cords and suspended in space.  Tw0 horizontal lines of globes mirror each other above and below.  In the context of the following passages by Rene Guenon from his book The Symbolism of the Cross, it would be tempting to see the globes in terms of the "points" he writes of: 

The significance of the doubling of the point by polarization will be even clearer if we look at it from a strictly ontological point of view.  In the account of God’s manifestation to Moses in the Burning Bush . . . Moses asks what is His Name.  He replies "Eheieh asher Eheich", ‘I am Who I am’ (or ‘I am That I am’), but the most exact rendering of which is ‘Being is Being.’ 

Guenon says one way of envisioning the formula ‘Being is Being’ is to postulate the second  Eheich as the reflection of the first in a mirror (an image of the contemplation of Being by Itself); and the ‘copula’ asher sets itself between those two terms as a link expressing their reciprocal relationship.  Guenon writes:

This corresponds exactly to the point, at first unique, then duplicating itself by a polarization which is also a reflection, and finally the relation of distance (an essentially reciprocal one) establishing itself between the two points by the very fact of their confrontation.    [emphasis mine]

#3   "Tree of Life" series  Symmetrical Photograph: 
12 globes (and 8 bald heads)  19x25"

#4   "Tree of Life" series  Symmetrical Photograph  19x25" 
12 globes and tent with black interior space 
as the "Point of origin"   

In the original version of the #4 symmetrical photograph above, the center space was filled with people standing around drinking wine and talking to each other.  After reading Guenon's Symbolism of the Cross, and his chapters on the "Geometrical Representation of the States of the Being" I felt compelled to reduce the center space to black space, which for me symbolizes the point of origin.  I particularly like the yin/yang, black/white, inside/outside polarities of this revised version of the tent image.  Guenon writes:  The point, which realizes the whole of space . . . makes itself the center of space by measuring it along all its dimensions through the indefinite extension of the branches of the cross in the six directions, or toward the six cardinal points of space [upward, downward; right, left; forward, backward].  

#5   "Tree of Life" series Symmetrical Photograph   19x25"

This webpage was first posted July 9, 2012.

Related texts and projects:

For an explanation regarding how I construct the symmetrical photographs, and the subtitle of this project: Double-page illuminations for Chapter V of "An Imaginary Book"  please visit my Preface to the entire series.

Welcome Page  to The Departing Landscape website which includes the complete hyperlinked listing of my online photography projects dating back to the 1960's, my resume, contact information, and more.