This piece is the first of a series illustrating the cosmological tradition of the early Islamic world, as synthesized in the teachings of Andalusian scholar Muhyiddin Ibn Arabi. Raised in Seville and buried in Damascus 800 years ago, Ibn Arabi is still known today as “the Greatest Teacher” الشيخ الأكبر , and his legacy is too immense to describe here. Amidst a monumental body of work, he described the visible and invisible universe in a number of diagrams which I aim to re-interpret through calligraphy.
The starting point for this first piece is the following chart, from Titus Burckhart’s Mystical Astrology According to Ibn ‘Arabi:
Cosmology came down to both the Christian and Islamic worlds from the ancient Hermetic tradition, so that the starting point for Ibn Arabi’s model is the Medieval model of geocentric planetary system. The placement of the earth at the centre is not, as is casually thought, a sign of pre-scientific ignorance: a close look at the chart shows the sun placed at the centre of the hierarchy of the spheres (seven spheres below it and seven above it), acknowledging its proper place as the centre of the solar system. No, the geocentric model is simply based on down-to-earth, experiential reality: it reflects reality as it presents itself immediately to our perception. We may know second-hand that we are not the centre of the universe, but we will always experience it as if we were.
This chart, then, describes a symbolic truth rooted in the contemplative mentality of the time, rather than the mechanical conception that has replaced it today. By a feat of multidimensional thinking, it combines a physical model of the cosmos with a metaphysical map of the relationship between humanity and the Divine. At the centre of the cosmos is the terrestrial sphere, the Earth, made up of the four elements or sub-lunar spheres. Around it turn the heavenly spheres which are the seven planets of antiquity and the stars; beyond these lies the super-celestial realm and the limit of what we can know.
This explains in a nutshell the layout of the chart, which is the outer layer of meaning of this piece.
The inner layer has to do with the very materials used, which were chosen to accurately reflect the spheres (as that same tradition goes). Among other correspondences, each planet is said to rule a metal, and this has a direct bearing on art. Long before industrially-made colours, artists ground their own pigments from a small range of minerals, some of them quite rare even today. The pigments owe their hues to the same metals ruled by the planets, so that a painter’s palette mirrored the solar system. I have returned to this relationship by using historical pigments in their correct correspondence with the planets, so that the energies of the planets are truly present in this artwork. For spheres with no metallic association, I used other natural pigments, home-ground when possible, bearing in mind that natural materials contain a vital energy not found in the inert, chemically-created colours. Read on for a detailed description of each of the fifteen spheres and the pigments used for them.
Of Planets and Pigments
THE SUB-LUNAR SPHERES
The lowest point of the cosmos, place of densest and final manifestation, is the terrestrial sphere, which is formed of the four elements: the four central rings in this piece. Their arrangement is not spatial, nor does “low” imply “less good”, but corresponds to density.
There are alchemical elements (such as sulphur and salt) associated with the elements, but no particular metals, so I went by colour correspondences.They are outlined, rather than solid, to set them apart from the planetary spheres which are rather more individually embodied.
Colour: green. Pigment: Terre verte (literally “green earth”)
Colour: blue. Pigment: Azurite
Colour: yellow. Pigment: Tin Yellow
Ether الأثير or Fire
Colour: red. Pigment: Cinnabar
THE PLANETARY SPHERES
Moon القمر : The metal corresponding to the Moon is Silver, and I used genuine silver leaf. This was sealed with an acrylic varnish to prevent it from tarnishing with time.
Mercury العطارد (also الكاتب): The metal is, unsurprisingly, Mercury. The pigment is cinnabar, a rock formed when mercury meets sulphur deeps inside the earth, where pressure and temperature are high. An explosion ensues and this red rock is formed. Uniquely, the more finely cinnabar is ground, the more vivid its red colour.
Venus الزهرة rules Copper, which is found in a range of blue and green minerals suitable for painting: azurite (once the most expensive blue), malachite (green) and chrysocolla (blue-green). I chose Chrysocolla, which I ground myself.
Sun الشمس : Its metal is Gold, and correspondingly I used 23.75 ct gold leaf. Although it doesn’t tarnish, I also varnished it as a measure against scratches and curious fingers.
Mars المرّيخ : rules Iron, which is all the earth pigments: umbers, siennas and ochers, some of which can even be greenish or purple in color. I used Burnt Sienna, to stand out between its neighbours gold and yellow.
Jupiter المشتري : Its metal is Tin, and corresponding pigment, Tin Yellow, yields a particularly luminous yellow.
Saturn الزحل (also المقاتل) rules Lead, a black metal that oxidizes into the purest white pigment, Lead White or Flake White.
THE OUTER SPHERES
The first two straddle the line between the physical world and that of the immutable archetypes.
The Sky of Fixed Stars فلك الكواكب (also فلك المنازل ): The zodiacal constellations. This is the extreme limit of the sensible world.
The Sky of No Stars فلك الأطلس (also فلك البروج) : The twelve signs of the zodiac, which are not identical with the constellations above but correspond to the archetypes that manifest as constellations. This sphere is the place of archetypes, i. e the “ideas” or “essences” behind the physical stars. As we are here venturing beyond the physical world, I used Indigo, a plant-based pigment of deep blue, and the transition symbolized by this pair of spheres is marked by a shift from solid colour to outlines again.
The two supreme spheres are the beginning of the super-celestial realm. They were never meant to represent spatial entities, but symbolize the passage from astronomy to metaphysics.
The Divine Pedestal الكرسي contains the skies and the earth.
The Throne العرش , which is as far as we can conceive of the Divine, encompasses the whole cosmos, all manifestation.
I used precious metals again, silver contrasted with gold, to express their particular status. The “silver” is in fact palladium, which doesn’t tarnish so I didn’t need to use varnish again, and 23.5 ct gold, both in “shell” form and burnished after painting to make them shine.
Beyond all of these extends the infinite darkness of Nothingness العمى, the unknown and unknowable. I used lamp black mixed to a matte consistency. I chose it for its bluish tinge, but also for its symbolic associations. It is made, as the name indicates, from soot, and in Ottoman Istanbul that soot came from the lamps inside mosques, caught in ventilation grates, and then made into the ink used by calligraphers, the material containing prayers as well as writing them.