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99 C h a p t e r F i v e Sacred Art and Architecture Holy Women in Built Form Early medieval Christians and Muslims created artistic images to illustrate their cosmologies and theologies in the social sphere. Much like hagiographers and theologians, artists and architects employed Mary and Fatima as symbols in their chosen space to depict constantly shifting theologies, political agendas, and gender expectations.1 Material culture—including Christian churches, Muslim mosques, and Shi`ite amulets—conveyed these cues that continuously shaped and reinforced communal identity. As early Christian artisans pictured Mary holding Jesus instead of oriental gods and goddesses and Safavid royalty commissioned the ahl al-bayt’s names engraved in mosques, they effectively evoked a religious orthodoxy for their communities to recognize.2 The creation of such visual displays and material culture did not proceed without considerable debate and even bloodshed. Since each group was rooted in monotheism and revered the commandment that proclaimed God’s oneness and prohibited strange gods, each had to negotiate the conflict between its desire for certain representations and this ancient law against them.3 In the end, they came to different conclusions: Christians allowed material and artistic displays because they saw their pedagogical value.4 Muslims rejected images as idolatrous, holding essentially the same ideals that one can find in ancient Judaism, although 100 Chosen among Women eventually Islam found a way to translate its beliefs into built form.5 Where Christians used statues and icons; Muslims defined sacred space and piety in calligraphy, geometric and floral designs, and grand architectural schemes. When Christians and Muslims in the early medieval period searched for appropriate ways to “picture” their relationships with God, they were drawn to Mary and Fatima whose stories and reputed powers linked them and their families with intercessory and religious authority. Although their theologies and traditions had different approaches to the use of religious images, architects and artists transformed these holy women into holy heroines of visual culture. The hagiographic tales and rhetorical twists narrated by medieval texts came alive in pictorial displays, sculpture , religious artifacts, amulets, and architecture. Christian and Islamic artists and architects emphasized their particular theologies as they transformed Mary and Fatima into visual form. Some of the earliest Western depictions of Mary appear in the thirdcentury Roman catacombs and the Italian basilica Santa Maria Maggiore . This church contains fifth-century mosaics of both Old and New Testament scenes that either foreshadow or reveal Christ’s birth along with Mary’s miraculous participation. Unfortunately, no Merovingian counterparts survive aboveground. Several hagiographies, however, do describe architecture and artifacts dedicated to Mary, and many of the chapels boasted of Marian relics. Shi`ite artists and architects presented Fatima in much more symbolic terms and usually along with the ahl al-bayt’s other members. In some hadith Fatima assumes the function of a mihrab (the prayer niche in mosques that points toward Mecca). According to one transmission, Fatima stood in her prayer chamber and emitted a light that permeated the city. Muhammad instructed his community to orient themselves toward Fatima’s light while praying.6 This miracle illustrates one of Fatima ’s most famous epithets, Fatima al-Zahra (the Radiant). Some Shi`ite hagiographers later associated that mysterious light with the lamps that hang from prayer niches in mosques.7 Fatima, symbolized by the lamp, also marks the way to the Kàba. She stands in the space between the profane and the sacred, the supplicant and Allah, earth and paradise. Shi`ite calligraphers recalled the holy family’s sublime authority by inscribing Qur’anic verses, prayers, Shi`ite hadith, and the Imams’ names throughout mosques. Two Iranian mosques constructed in the medieval period provide evidence of Shi`ite Muslims’ adoration for the holy family. The mosque/mausoleum Gunbad-i `Alawiyan at Hamadan incorporates popular Shi`ite verses into its architectural design; and Fatima al-Màsuma’s shrine (the eighth Imam’s sister) also contains calligraphic inscriptions praising the ahl al-bayt.8 Shi`ites also celebrated the family’s power in a (perhaps) less subtle manner; amulets of the human hand signified their status and served as talismans against malevolent forces, or, more specifically, the evil eye. In Middle Eastern culture, the evil eye is associated with envy, much like the envy Eve cast to Fatima’s preexistent form in paradise. According to Shi`ite interpretation, each digit on the talisman represents a family member: Muhammad, Fatima, `Ali, Hasan, and...


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