Plotting Paradise: A journey through medieval maps and the mind



Strains of Paradise may start with medieval maps and the Garden of Eden, but producer Anthony Denselow and I didn’t want to shy away from difficult questions too.  So we ask a Muslim theologian about the power of a highly sexual Islamic concept of paradise so beloved by murdering jihadists. Incidentally are 72 virgins really a mistranslation of 72 raisins? And the very political and current row over Britain as a paradise for economic migrants, launching daily attempts to get here from “The Jungle” in Calais.

Diwan-e-Khas, Red Fort, Delhi

Diwan-e-Khas, Red Fort, Delhi

But we begin our journey in the British Library with keeper Peter Barber, looking at images of medieval maps that place Eden as a physical place separate from heaven – a bubble of perfection. You can see it in Hereford’s famous Mappa Mundi above; Adam and Eve within,  showing the 4 rivers including the Tigris and the Euphrates that locate Paradise in modern day Iraq. Persians and their Mughal emperors builts walled gardens across their empire – creating private courtly paradises within their palaces such as Delhi’s Red Fort. It was prevalent in medieval courtly manuscripts and clearly inspired CS Lewis’ Christian walled garden with its healing fruit trees in The Magician’s Nephew.

Nico Muhly’s haunting music for the Wilton Diptych in the National Gallery of Richard II sets the scene for Shakespeare’s John of Gaunt “this sceptr’d isle” speech from his play about the monarch. The suserration of the angels’ wings evoked in the strings of a viola da gamba.

Harry McClintock’s Big Rock Candy Mountain, most famously used on the soundtrack of the  Depression era film O Brother Where Art Thou? conveys a bittersweet vision of Paradise. A hobo’s vision. I’m making a partner programme on The Other Place (Hell, Limbo, Purgatory) to come in the autumn.

Something Understood: Strains of Paradise is on BBC Radio 4 on Sunday August 30th at 6am, 1130pm and iplayer for a month after

Further listening/reading

My Spotify list of featured music – (with a substitution piece for Nico Muhly as it’s not commercially available)

Nico Muhly on his music for the Wilton Diptych – You can hear more of it and listen to him talk to me about it on Front Row (July 2015) – about 3 min in.

About samiraahmed

Journalist. Writer. Broadcaster.
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