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  • Primero Huerto: Iconography, Anamorphism, and the Idea of the Garden in Sixteenth-Century Spanish Mysticism
  • María M. Carrión

O marvel! a garden amidst flames

Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabi, “Poem 11”, Tarjumān al-Ashwāq

(Interpreter of Desires)

The figure of the garden appears in numerous artistic, architectural, and literary texts associated with mystical discourses and practices. These texts usually render the garden as fertile grounds for planting, sowing and harvesting, for meditation and stillness, and for numerous other tenets of generative events and narratives. In a fitting tribute to the poetic fabric of the Book of Genesis from the Hebrew Bible, Ronald King begins his own narrative of The Quest for Paradise with the concept of “The Garden of Eden”, which he lifts from the biblical tale of the perfect moment of union between man and his creator: [End Page 61]

And the Lord God planted a garden eastward in Eden and there he put the man whom he had formed. And out of the ground made the Lord God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight/and good for food.


The emphasis on sight and food as well as the “eastward” location of this Garden will be, as we shall see shortly, key signs to reading the idea of the garden in sixteenth-century Spanish mystical texts as primero huerto -a phrase adopted here to mean a myriad of possible translations, such as ‘first garden’, ‘firstly the garden’, ‘I first garden’, or ‘I, firstly a garden’. This, in sum, is a place of mystical rendition, a space related to eternal life, a paradisiac locus of pleasure, a land of good and also of evil where the idea of a union of a devoted subject with the divine takes place.1

The event of the mystical union -a key sign of the ineffable condition of all mystical discourse- as well as the mourning that overcomes the lover in the absence of the beloved, both usually take place, not by chance, in a garden. Michael Sells speaks of “Love” in the world of poetry, religion, and relations between al-Andalus and the Arabic world. “Love talk” or ghazal, Sells says, originates as a poetic form in the nasîb, or amatory prelude to the pre-Islamic qasida. Amongst ruins, desolation, Bedouin campsites, mourning, and recognition, a garden appears; as the lover recognizes the absence of the beloved, “this moment of discovery often incites a reverie, a vision of past times with her and the transformation, in memory or imagination, of desolation into a lost garden: cold, running water, lush vegetation, wild animals at peace. At some point the reverie is broken and the poet [End Page 62] reminds himself that the beloved is gone and the garden wasted” (“Love” 127). The garden, in other words, is not mere background, but a catalyst of a transformation of love, recognition, and change. Be that as it may, gardens in mystical texts are oftentimes interpreted merely in aesthetic terms; here, however, primero huerto signals another meaning of the garden -that of a space that incorporates and makes possible for readers to consider and ponder heaven, theology, hate, earthly experience, violence, love, and the heart. For Annemarie Schimmel, the development of life in a well-tended garden at once inspires, reflects, and corresponds with human inner life; it is not merely a background upon which the union takes place but, rather, the very character by virtue of which such union is possible (11–39).

As the cultivation and traditions of gardening by many a culture on earth attest, the growth of life in a garden represents in more ways than one the growth of a cultured soul. For some, like Henri Pérès and James Dickie, gardening represents the coming of age of a specific culture (87–105). Pérès examines the correspondence of the centrality of Islamic gardens in medieval Iberia with the rawdiyyat, a sophisticated poetic form so ubiquitous that it leads him to conclude that “Andalucía y España entera no han sido otra cosa que un vasto jardín en el que las flores y los árboles hacían alarde de los...


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