Celestial Gardens

Celestial Gardens 
             Symmetrical reflections of Paradisal Unity
             Double-page illuminations for "An Imaginary Book" Chapter II 

  Celestial Gardens #1  (ancient columns, mineral springs, Pamukkale, Turkey)   double-page illumination   Inkjet prints 19x25”  
Click on images to enlarge
Note:  Celestial Gardens is the second in a series of nine core projects or "chapters" for "An Imaginary Book" which was inspired by my travel experiences in Turkey in the spring of 2011, and my concentrated studies of Islamic sacred art and sacred knowledge that followed the first project Prayer Stones.  MPreface, the Epilogue and all the core and peripheral projects in the "book" are available at this link "An Imaginary Book" which offers a brief illustrated introduction to each of the projects.   Steven D. Foster 


After completing the Prayer Stones project I felt a strong desire to continue making symmetrical photographs, which at that point in time were very new to me.  For a detailed outline on how I construct the symmetrical photographs see my Preface  As I continued making the  symmetrical images I was also reading voraciously about the sacred art and sacred knowledge traditions of Islam.  In my various readings I came across several interesting references to the Gardens of Paradise.  I learned there are over 120 references to Paradise in the Qur'an, and that the traditional design of Islamic sacred gardens is based on the Qur'anic Paradisal references.  I could not help but recognize there was a close visual relationship between the structure of my symmetrical photographs and the traditional Islamic garden design. 

Traditional Islamic Garden Design
In brief, the traditional Islamic garden consists of a rectangular or square space (usually surrounded by a high wall) divided into four equal parts with a fountain or pool of overflowing water at the very center.  Water is a traditional symbol for the Light of Divine Wisdom, and thus “four celestial rivers” feed into the central pool of the garden from the four cosmic directions: North & South, the vertical axis / East & West, the horizontal axis.  These opposing intersecting axes provide the garden with its four-fold symmetrical order.

Also there will often be a tree, symbolizing the Tree of Life, planted near the central pool.  With its branches reaching into Heaven, the sacred tree is also symbolic of the sacred pen that wrote the Divine Words of the Qur'an.  I am grateful to Emma Clark for her book on the traditional Islamic garden.  She writes:

The fundamental message of the Qur'an is the concept of Unity. . . Existence is entirely centered on the consciousness of Divine Unity and this means that everything in the created world -- all of phenomena -- is transparent; that is, behind the ephemeral beauty of the outward form lies the ineffable spirit within.  It is this invisible, eternal and transcendent quality that gives the world of nature and all of manifestation its meaning: all else passes away.   
Emma Clark, The Art of the Islamic Garden 

Symbols of Unity  
The Islamic garden must be understood as a symbol, a reflection of the primordial, archetypal unitary reality 0f the Celestial Paradise as it is described in the Qur'an.  The Paradisal Divine Presence which exists within it's earthly, reflected manifestations are usually not perceptible to most of us because of what the Islamic Sufis term the mystic veils.  

In Islamic sacred art we usually encounter non-figurative abstract designs, and highly stylized, nearly abstract vegetal designs or arabesques which are used in prayer rugs, mosque decorations, illuminated Qur'ans and traditional Islamic gardens.  These designs are intended to function for the seeker, the contemplative viewer, as earthly vehicles for Divine Presence.

In my illustration below, I have used the single source image of a volcano to construct the Four-fold symmetrical photograph immediately below it.  As a living symbol the symmetrical photograph has the potential to serve the contemplative viewer as a means to unveil the Divinity that exists within earthly creation.    

Source Image (volcano) for the Four Fold Symmetrical Photograph, below

Celestial Gardens #8r  (volcano, Costa Rica double-page illumination   19 x 25"

It is said those who fully participate in the living symbolism of the Islamic garden will be graced with an interior transformation: a glimpse of Divine Unity, an experience of Heaven on Earth, Infinite Perfection, Eternal Peace . . .  

The Sufi poet-saint, Rumi says in one of his poems:
    The Real Gardens and Flowers are within;
    they are within man’s heart, not outside.

    Celestial Gardens #7  " The Heart"   (tree with orange and green leaves, Hudson River Valley double-page illumination   19 x 25"

The Heart: Center of the "Garden"
Martin Lings: What is Sufism?
The Heart corresponds to the centre of the Garden, the point where grows the Tree of Life and where flows the Fountain of Life.  The Heart is in fact nothing other than this Fountain. . . The extreme significance of this penultimate degree in the hierarch of centres is that it marks the threshold of the Beyond, the point at which the natural ends and the supernatural or transcendent begins.  The Heart is the "isthmus" which is so often mentioned in the Qur'an as separating 'the two seas' which represent Heaven and earth. . .  Moses says: 'I will not cease until I reach the meeting-place of the two seas.'   He is formulating the initial vow that every mystic must make, implicitly if not explicitly, to reach the lost Centre which alone gives access to transcendent knowledge. ~  In the Sufi's turning away from the world in the direction of the Heart there lies a powerful discipline of consecration.  

Contemplation & the Celestial Gardens photographs
Double-page Qur'an illuminations are intended to prepare the reader for the revealed words of God in the Qur'an.  In a similar way, Islamic gardens are designed to provide the contemplative seeker with refuge from the world of action, to help the soul to prepare for the inner work that needs to be done to return to its Origin.  The garden, with it's four-fold design and its natural environs, provides a place where the mind of a seeker can become still, and the heart can safely open.  

The Celestial Gardens photographs, in their four-fold symmetrical unity, give visual form to the Islamic docrine of Unity of Being; as such the photographs function as symbols in  which their pictorial space manifest as sacred space.  When I take time to contemplate these photographs, that is to say, really enter the interior space of the images, I often experience a stilled mind, and feel refreshed by an unusually calming sense of peace.  Contemplating a symmetrical photograph is like entering a celestial garden with an intensified consciousness.  When one reaches the garden's center and stops a while to listen to the soothing sound of its sacred waters, one can begin to imbibe the garden's divine silence.  

I like to think that the symmetrical photographs have in some small way become part of the great sacred art tradition of Islam; and that the images will function for others, as they have for me, as living symbols of The Heart, the ineffable spirit within.


 Celestial Gardens #17  (Tree limbs, Turkey)   double-page illumination  19 x 25"

 Celestial Gardens #18  (Cloud forest, Costa Rica double-page illumination   19 x 25"

Abstraction & Representation
Over the many years I've been making photographs I've sustained a keen interest in the transforming power of the photographic medium, and in the idea of the abstract nature of the photograph.  If one looks carefully, there is a tension between the more traditional, representational facility inherent within the photographic process, and the formal, structural and abstract qualities of the photographic image itself.  This is a powerful dynamic which many viewers are unaware of, and usually find difficult to understand, though I believe its impact on one's viewing experience is intuitively quite significant.  

The symmetrical photographs display a strong tendency toward visual transformation and "abstraction."  The original source images used to make the Four-fold photographs sometimes become nearly impossible to identify or locate in their symmetrical transformational state.  As such, our primary empathy to the image shifts from subject matter (what was photographed, and memories associated with the things of the world) to the structure of the image which the content reveals, that is to say the colors, textures, rhythms, lines, shapes, pictorial spaces, etc.   

It seems to me the abstract nature of the Celestial Gardens photographs, and especially their rhythmical characteristics, place the work in close association with Traditional aspects of Islamic sacred art, for example the repeating and rhythmic geometrical patterns and stylized aboral and vineal forms we see in Islamic arabesque.  As the symmetrical photograph gently "liberates" the source image from its earthly origins, as a contemplative viewer I too become free to discover new meanings and feelings which emerge spontaneously from within myself as I view and experience the four-fold symmetrical photographs.  

Islam’s concentration on geometric patterns [which are based upon mathematical laws of repetition] draws attention away from the representational world to one of pure forms, poised tensions and dynamic equilibrium, giving structural insight into the workings of the inner self and their reflection in the universe.  ~  The circle is the archetypal governing basis for all the geometric shapes that unfold within it . . . reflecting the unity of its original source, the point, the simple, self-evident origin of geometry and a subject grounded in mystery.  ~  The circle has always been regarded as a symbol of eternity, without beginning and without end,  just being.  ~  In the effort to trace origins in creation, the direction is not backwards but inwards.  Keith CritchlowIslamic Patterns

Just as every Islamic sacred garden has at its center, at its very heart an overflowing pool or fountain, so every symmetrical photograph has a center point where all four repeated and mirroring images intersect and conjoin into a visual unity.  The point is imaginal, but the visual structure of the image itself provides the means with which we can enter into the mystery of that interior space, the heart of the photograph and correspondingly the center point of our very own hearts.

The Titles in relation to Contemplation
I have included under each photograph a brief title which references the subject matter that was photographed and used as source material in the construction of the Four-fold symmetrical photograph.  When contemplating a Celestial Gardens photograph it could be useful to consider the source image used in its construction and the degree of transformation that has occurred.  Titles can be used a helpful leaping off point for the imagination; on the one hand it's important not to get stuck on the content of the image; on the other hand its important not to loose sight of the visual material associated to the title of the image.

Viewing photographs, becoming aware of their symbolic potential, and then going inside oneself with the image to interpret and integrate the symbol's meanings for oneself individually is an important part of the creative process.  The contemplation of symbolic images, says Islamic scholar Henry Corbin, can return us to our divine place of Origin.  Visit Creative - Active Imagination.

The Source Images  Nature: the Breath that pervades the world.
In the initial stages of the Celestial Gradens project I had restricted my source imagery to photographs I had taken in Turkey during my trip.  As the project progressed and its  direction became more clear to me, I decided to use imagery from some of my earlier projects as well.   I did however restricted my selection to images of the natural world.  This of course honor's the idea of "the garden" but I was also considering another important Islamic esoteric tradition: although everything in the created world is considered a sign or symbol of God, the great Sufi mystic Ibn 'Arabi has written: "Nature is the most deserving relation to be identified with the Real because everything else was manifested by it.  Nature is God's breath, the creative medium that pervades the world."

Looking Closely  Click on the Images
Photographs mean in many different ways, and of course how we view a photograph impacts what we see and what meanings we may glean from the image.  I encourage you to click on the symmetrical photographs with your cursor (once, twice) to enlarge the image; this will allow you to have a closer more detailed look.  I have found that as move closer to the image and thus more deeply into the unified pictorial space of the symmetrical photographs, surprising visual constellations are revealed that I could not have seen from a more detached or distanced viewing position -- such as hidden face-like constellations which are the surprising gifts of the Four-fold picture-making process.  Perhaps discovering these "hidden faces" will serve as a reminder of the Qur'anic teaching: Wheresoever ye turn, there is the Face of God [11:109]


Welcome to Celestial Gardens.

               We came whirling
               out of nothingness
               like dust

               the stars made a circle
               and in the middle
               we dance

               the wheel of heaven
               circles God
               like a mill . . .

               and it is only God
               circling Himself 


 Celestial Gardens #2  ("The Flight of Birds to Union" meadow, Canandaigua)  double-page illumination  19 x 25"

The Flight of Birds to Union   
The title of the image above, The Flight of Birds to Union comes from a famous Sufi story, Mantiq al-T-tayr, considered a masterpiece of literature written by the Persian Farid al-din ‘Attar in 1177.  It is a poem of longing to know Divine Truth.  The poem uses a journey by a group of 30 birds, led by a hoopoe (a colorful bird with a majestic crown of feathers), as an allegory about a Sufi master leading his pupils to enlightenment.  

Scholar Seyyed H Nasr writes about the poem in his book Islamic Art and Spirituality:  "All those who are not completely at home in this world of fleeting shadows and who yearn for their origin in the Paradisal Abode belong to the family of birds, for their soul possesses wings no matter how inexperienced they might be in actually flying toward the space of Divine Presence."

May the Celestial Gardens photographs "possess wings" and fly with you toward that Presence.

 Celestial Gardens #3  (water flowing over rocks double-page illumination  19 x 25"

 Celestial Gardens #4  Transparent Veil (tropical mangrove forest and waterway, Costa Rica)   double-page illumination  19 x 25"

Celestial Gardens #5  (Canandaigua Lake double-page illumination  19 x 25"


  Celestial Gardens  #6  Tropical Flowers, Costa Rica  double-page illumination  19 x 25"

    Celestial Gardens #8r  (volcano, Costa Rica double-page illumination   19 x 25"

In the Qur’an four gardens are described in pairs; the first 
 or lower pair is known as the “Garden of the Soul and 
the Garden of the Heart”.  The second and higher
 pair is known as the “Garden of the Spirit” 
and the “Garden of the Essence”.   
 Emma Clark, The Art of the Islamic Garden

 Celestial Gardens #10  (winter stream)   double-page illumination  19 x 25"

Celestial Gardens #12  (Cherry tree in blossom, Washington D.C. double-page illumination  19 x 25"

 Celestial Gardens #14  (Hudson River swamp grass double-page illumination   19 x 25"

 Celestial Gardens #20  (goldfish in garden pool double-page illumination   19 x 25"

 Celestial Gardens #28  (the highlands)   double-page illumination   19 x 25"

 Celestial Gardens #29  (Stonybrook waterfalls double-page illumination   19 x 25"

 Celestial Gardens #31  (Cloud forest bridge, Costa Rica double-page illumination  19 x 25"

     Celestial Gardens #1  (ancient columns, mineral springs, Pamukkale, Turkey)   double-page illumination   
     Inkjet prints 19x25”    

*     *     *

Note: to continue on to"Chapter III" of "An Imaginary Book" please click here.


Please note: my forth project Crystalline Paradise: Moorish Spain includes many wonderful quotes about Islamic gardens interspersed between the photographs.  

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.