The Paradise Carpet

The Persian word for enclosed park or walled garden is paridaeza, whence our “paradise.” Such gardens, which were also orchards, flowerbeds, water sources, and sometimes menageries, existed throughout the ancient Near East (and still are built today). They were, and are, important places of refreshment, of fruitfulness, of fragrance and sweetness, of rest and shade and delight. Not surprisingly, such gardens became sources of enduring imagery for literature and poetry across the region, including the Israel of the Old Testament.

Here we examine an example of just such an enclosed garden made flesh—or at least wool, cotton, and silk: the so-called Wagner Carpet (named after a previous owner) from seventeenthcentury Isphahan (a province in present-day Iran), now part of the Burrell Collection in Glasgow, Scotland (see the inside back cover for a color image of this carpet). Paradise carpets were made for both indoor and outdoor use. The climate in Isphahan ranges from freezing in the winter to the nineties in the height of summer and fall; the carpet is a quest for an eternal spring. It would have been spread in a winter palace (it measures 14 by 17 feet) or in a shaded outdoor pavilion in summer, projecting hopeful images of a fantastical spring.

The imagery it encompasses comes from a common Middle Eastern culture which can cast light on our understanding of the Bible and, save for the constraints set on visual images, might have been a Hebrew illustration of much of Scripture.

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Mary Elizabeth Podles is the retired curator of Renaissance and Baroque art at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. She and her husband Leon, a Touchstone senior editor, have six children and live in Baltimore, Maryland.

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