Saturday, February 22, 2014

Religion as Seen Through the Garden

Question: In the three cultures we have so far studied - Roman, Mediæval and Muslim - how did /does the garden play a role in their respective religions? 

As can be seen through Ancient Roman, Medieval and Islamic history the garden manifests the role and practice of religion in different cultures. The garden is used and designed in a variety of different ways, but as religion (and by extension garden design) evolved through each culture the ideas and designs were incorporated and reflected in subsequent or parallel cultures.

To the Romans, religion acted as a mutual exchange. The devotion and faith expressed by Christians was not the dominant theme of Roman religious worship. Instead the Romans thought of religion as a give and take relationship where gods were worshiped and in return the devotee expected something. This idea was expressed in the garden throughout the many statues and shrines (aediculas) that displayed the gods. Venus, the god of gardens and vineyards, as well as Pariapus, the god of fertility were often placed in Roman Gardens. 

When Rome fell and Europe “went dark,” Christianity was becoming more and more popular. As a consequence, Medieval gardens began to take on new religious significance. These christian gardens began in monasteries and were erected in enclosed courtyards. They were purposed toward religious discussions, teachings and reflection. As the medieval ages progressed and the church amassed more power the significance of the garden evolved. Gardens were to become a representation of Eden. They were enclosed and signified purity, freedom and uncorrupted nature. Hence they become identified with The Virgin Mary. She was pure and uncorrupted and thus a perfect addition to Eden’s garden. Mary was represented in the garden in a variety of ways. Firstly, she is often painted in scenes of the garden. Further, she has her own flowers that represent her purity and grace: the red rose, white lily and purple violet. Monastic gardens continue the trend of religious significance by utilizing a quadripartite design. That is, a garden divided into four sections and separated by four small streams or walkways. These segments were supposed to represent the four rivers of life that flow out of the garden in Eden (Pishon, Gihon, Tigris and the Euphrates). The adjacent picture shows not only the four sections, but the further allusion to the tree of life. 

The gardens of Islam picked up on many of the same themes of the Medieval, christian gardens. The four rivers of life are again represented in Islamic gardens, but as the rivers of water, wine, milk and honey. These layouts are sometimes referred to as Chahar Bagh. Thus, the intricate intermingling of christianity and Islam can be seen throughout the garden. Unlike the Christian garden focus on a pre-human times, Islamic gardens are focused on the afterlife, i.e. “Jannat al-firdaws,” or gardens of paradise. The garden of paradise is the place where devout Muslims go when they die.

The evolution of religion as seen through the garden is one way to analyze different ways in which cultures practice and approach religion. 

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