"...the Imagination (or love, or sympathy, or any other sentiment) induces knowledge, and knowledge of an 'object' which is proper to it..."
Henry Corbin (1903-1978) was a scholar, philosopher and theologian. He was a champion of the transformative power of the Imagination and of the transcendent reality of the individual in a world threatened by totalitarianisms of all kinds. One of the 20th century’s most prolific scholars of Islamic mysticism, Corbin was Professor of Islam & Islamic Philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris and at the University of Teheran. He was a major figure at the Eranos Conferences in Switzerland. He introduced the concept of the mundus imaginalis into contemporary thought. His work has provided a foundation for archetypal psychology as developed by James Hillman and influenced countless poets and artists worldwide. But Corbin’s central project was to provide a framework for understanding the unity of the religions of the Book: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. His great work Alone with the Alone: Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn ‘Arabi is a classic initiatory text of visionary spirituality that transcends the tragic divisions among the three great monotheisms. Corbin’s life was devoted to the struggle to free the religious imagination from fundamentalisms of every kind. His work marks a watershed in our understanding of the religions of the West and makes a profound contribution to the study of the place of the imagination in human life.

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Wednesday, December 3, 2008

The Green Bird & the Resurrection Body

What follows is the NOTE ON ILLUSTRATIONS from Corbin's Spiritual Body and Celestial Earth (lacking diacritical marks), pp. xxxi-xxxii, with some additions of my own in brackets [] and some hyperlinks that may be of interest:

"The design of the frontispiece is reproduced from a silk textile in the collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art, purchased from the J.H. Wade Fund. It also appears in a book by Gaston Wiet entitled Soieries Persan (Mémoires de l'Institut d'Egypte, Vol. 52, Cairo, 1947, Pl. XI and pp. 55-63). The original figure on silk was discovered in 1925, together with many other extraordinary pieces, when certain graves accidentally came to light in the hills adjoining the sanctuary of Shahr-Banu, not far from Ray [also see this] (the Rhages of the Book of Tobias), a few miles to the south of Teheran. [On this see my post of Dec. 18, 2008 on the "Buyid Silks" controversy.]

It can be inferred from the place of the discovery that this was a precious material offered by friends or relatives for wrapping the body of the deceased person (cf. Issa Behnam, in Revue de la Faculté des Lettres de l'Université de Téhéran, October, 1956). It is said to date from the fifth century (eleventh century C.E.) and was found in a state of perfect preservation. Iconographically, it is interesting as a motif in the Sasanid style on material dating from the great Islamic period. The site of the discovery makes it even more interesting, for, according to Iranian tradition, the princess Shahr-Banu, daughter of the last Sasanid ruler, Yazdgard III, became the wife of Husayn ibn 'Ali the Third Imam of the Shi'ites, and here we find an expression, iconographic and topographic, of the union of Mazdean [Zoroastrian] Iran and Shi'ite Iran.

Beyond doubt the design represents the theme of the ascent to Heaven: a youth, with a royal head of hair as a halo, is carried off into space by a great fantastic bird that holds him enclosed in his breast. Certain stylized details suggest that this bird be identified, not merely as a two-headed eagle, but as the 'anqa' (the phoenix) or simurgh, which, already in the Avesta as in the later Persian mystical epics, assumes so many symbolic functions, even becoming the emblem of the Holy Spirit. It would be useless to multiply examples based on outer analogies (which would lead us far afield, even to the abduction of Ganymede, for instance). But it is of direct interest to draw attention to an episode in the heroic epic of Iran [the Shahnama], namely, the abduction of Zal, son of Sam [left], who was nurtured and reared by the bird Simurgh. Suhrawardi developed at great length in one of his mystical romances the spiritual meaning of this episode [See L'Incantation de la Simorgh, with introduction & notes by Corbin, pp. 441-69 in L'archange empourpré: Quinze traités et récits mystiques]. And in this sense it comes finally into full accord with the hadith which, without further reference, can best lead us to meditation on the symbolism of this image. The hadith in question alludes to the green Bird whose breast offers shelter, in the other world, to the spirits of the 'witnesses of truth' [the martyrs]. As interpreted by Simnani, one of the Iranian Sufi masters, this is an allusion to the formation of the "resurrection body." Thus the hieratic movement of being taken up to Heaven, which the Iranian artist has represented here, reveals the meaning of what Wiet so rightly calls its "triumphant gravity."

We should not omit pointing out that exactly the same motif, with all the features justifying reference to the hadith interpreted by Simnani, figures among the paintings adorning the ceiling of the Palatine Chapel in Palermo, [Byzantine, Sicily (1130-1140 C.E.) - an example is reproduced on the left] (cf. Ugo Monneret de Villard, Le pitture musulmane al soffito della Cappella Palatina in Palermo [Rome, 1950], pp. 47-48 and Figs 52-55, 245). Whether or not the Palermo painters came from Fatimid Egypt, it is known that they were inspired by themes originating for the post part in Iran, and often, as in the present case, did no more than reproduce them." - Henry Corbin

From the Topkapi Museum comes The Abduction of Zal by the Simurgh, from the Shah-nama. From the Sarai Albums, Tabriz, ca. 1370, Hazine 2153, folio 23a. The image from the Palatine Chapel is taken from wikimedia. - TC

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