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The Supreme Theophany

Miniature No. 3

from a series of nine miniatures depicting

themes from the Bahá'í Revelation

by Michael Sours

Copyright © 1996

 

All around us there are signs of what can be regarded as God's presence in the world. Yet, in the sacred Scriptures of all the world's great Faiths, there are symbolic records of certain unique and signal events, great moments when God reveals Himself directly to the world through a chosen Messenger. Such theophanies1 often signify the beginning or birth of a religion and a new stage in humanity's social and spiritual evolution.

The encounter between the Spirit of God and Moses, Jesus, Muhammad, or Bahá'u'lláh is too mysterious a reality to be adequately described in any language. For this reason such encounters, or theophanies, are communicated through the use of beautiful and powerful symbolic descriptions, such as Moses' encounter with the Burning Bush (Exod. chap. 3), the descent of the Dove upon Jesus (Matt. 3:16), the appearance of the Angel Gabriel to Muhammad (Qur'án 26:192­95), or Bahá'u'lláh's vision of the Maiden (see for example, Bahá'u'lláh quoted in Shoghi Effendi, God Passes By 101).2 In one since, descriptions of such encounters affirm God's immanence or closeness to us all, yet in another since the use of symbolic intermediaries in such descriptions suggest God's transcendence and inaccessibleness.

This miniature is an attempt to recreate pictorially and symbolically the "first stirrings of God's Revelation" within Bahá'u'lláh's soul (God Passes By 101) based on symbolism found in the sacred writings of Bahá'u'lláh. In a number of different tablets, Bahá'u'lláh chose the female3 personification of Wisdom4 to symbolize the appearance of the Spirit of God in this age. In the writings of Bahá'u'lláh, She is the Maid of Heaven, the Bride of the Manifestation of God unveiling the inner essence of God's wisdom in each age. She represents the eternal Wisdom of God, the divine Law, the Most Great Spirit that has appeared to all the Manifestations of God throughout the ages.

In the year 1852 (1269 A.H. of the Islamic calendar), the governing and ecclesiastical powers of Persia launched an intense attack against the followers of the Báb. During this period of persecution, Bahá'u'lláh was imprisoned and chained in a dark subterranean dungeon in Tihrán, known as the Síyáh-Chál (meaning black dungeon or black pit). It is in connection with this experience that Bahá'u'lláh speaks of the first stirrings of God's Revelation within His soul. In a tablet Bahá'u'lláh titled Words of Paradise (Kalimát-i-Firdawsíyyih), He writes,

Wisdom is God's emissary . . . In the city of justice it is the unrivalled Speaker Who, in the year nine, illumined the world with the joyful tidings of this Revelation. (Tablets of Bahá'u'lláh 66)

In this verse, Wisdom is the One Who appears to Bahá'u'lláh and announces God's Revelation (for location in miniature, see figure below, letter "A"). This happens in the "year nine," which is the year 1269 A.H., nine years after the proclamation of the Báb in 1844 (1260 A.H.). In another tablet, this Speaker is described as a maiden. Bahá'u'lláh writes,

While engulfed in tribulations I heard a most wondrous, a most sweet voice, calling above My head. Turning My face, I beheld a Maiden-the embodiment of the remembrance of the name of My Lord-suspended in the air before Me. (from the Súratu'l-Haykal, see Shoghi Effendi, God Passes By 101­2)

In various tablets, different words are attributed to the Maiden. The many differences between Bahá'u'lláh's accounts of this Theophany indicate the symbolic nature of His descriptions. This miniature is not an attempt to render any one of these accounts into a literal pictorial interpretation --something that could never be done adequately--but rather to create a pictorial conflation of various symbolic elements expressing the central aspects of this theme found in the sacred Bahá'í writings.

 

Explanation of Symbols

The overall composition follows that of miniature 1 in this series, that is, the composition of the Bahá'í ringstone symbol (see explanatory brochure for miniature 1). It also conforms to the text in the lower panel of this miniature (see figure above. letter B)-which contain Bahá'u'lláh's words that God "bade Me lift up My voice between earth and heaven" (Epistle 11). The upper portion of the miniature represents heaven and the lower portion represents earth. Between these worlds is the world of the Manifestations (see figures below).

Three overlapping spheres occupy the foreground of the composition with a decorative background composed of nine-pointed stars and a floral motif. The top sphere signifies the celestial realms and shows the Maid of Heaven (Wisdom/ Sophia) accompanied by angels with a background of seven heavens and nineteen stars. The middle sphere represents the world of the Manifestation and here a figural calligraphic rendering of the name "Bahá'u'lláh" (C) surrounded by an abstract nine-petalled rose (D) is positioned against a background representing the dungeon in Tihrán where Bahá'u'lláh was confined. The bottom sphere represents the world of humanity, and contains a springtime meadow scene with deer and birds. Over this scene a panel of sacred text is shown signifying the Tablet of God and containing words of Bahá'u'lláh referring to the birth of His mission.

 

The Maid of Heaven

In this miniature, the Maid of Heaven is shown wearing a bride's veil (E). This veil signifies the difficulties of past Scriptures, their terminology and symbolism, laws, languages, and vastness, etc.--characteristics that are like a veil often obscuring the inner essence of the Wisdom that was revealed by the Prophets of past ages. When Bahá'u'lláh reiterated this ancient wisdom in the Hidden Words, this veil was lifted. In the Hidden Words, Bahá'u'lláh writes that the "mystic and wondrous Bride, hidden ere this beneath the veiling of utterance, hath now, by the grace of God and His divine favor, been made manifest even as the resplendent light shed by the beauty of the Beloved" (Hidden Words 51­2, cf. Bahá'u'lláh's preface to Hidden Words).

The mystic Bride is also a symbol found in the biblical wisdom literature (see esp., Wisdom of Solomon) and in prophecy. In the prophetic context, it signifies the revelation of the Law. 'Abdu'l-Bahá indicates that these prophecies are now fulfilled in this day (see 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Selections 12, cf. Eccles. 19:20, Rev. 21:2).

 

The Angels

Throughout Bahá'í sacred Scriptures, there are numerous references to angels, maids of heaven (in Arabic, húrís), and the "Concourse on High" or "Celestial Concourse." This type of symbolism is ancient and in many instances shared by both Semitic and Indian religious traditions. Depictions of winged angels can, for example, be found in Christian, Islamic, and Buddhist pictorial art. Much of this Christian, Islamic, and Bahá'í symbolism has antecedents found in Jewish Scripture and traditions. Bahá'u'lláh, for example, specifically refers to the Cherubim (Kitáb-i-Íqán 79) and the Seraph of God (Kitáb-i-Íqán 116). He also mentions specific angels by name, such as Gabriel (Kitáb-i-Íqán 50) and 'Izrá'íl (Seven Valleys 26, Oneworld edn.).

In Bahá'í Scripture, explanations can be found for this type of symbolism. In one since angels are persons who have reinforced themselves with "the power of the Spirit, have consumed, with the fire of the love of God, all human traits and limitations, and have clothed themselves with the attributes of the most exalted beings" (Kitáb-i-Íqán 78­9). Saints in this world and many souls in the next world can, for example, be regarded as angels. With regard to maidens-a symbolism found in the Qur'án --Bahá'u'lláh writes, "How many the húrís of inner meaning that are as yet concealed within the chambers of divine wisdom!" (Kitáb-i-Íqán 70).

This type of symbolism is a pervasive and beautiful characteristic of sacred Scripture. Angels are archetypes of the spiritual potential within us. It is also worth noting that Bahá'u'lláh rarely provides explanations to such symbolism in His Writings (see for example, Gleanings lxxxi). It would seem that He either assumes the reader will understand its significance or that, even if taken literally, it will evoke the desired response. The angels shown accompanying the Maiden in this miniature are in one respect a conflation of two forms of celestial symbolism, angels and maidens (húrís), that is, all the angels shown are maidens. In this miniature (F), each of the maidens is "adorned . . . with the roses of wisdom" (Kitáb-i-Íqán 211).

Apart from references to Cherubim and Seraphim, there does not appear to be explicit textual support for the symbolism of winged angels. However, in Bahá'u'lláh's writings, there are frequent references to holy personages symbolically winging their flight to the realms above. Moreover, He associates the symbolism of wings with the attributes of certainty (Kitáb-i-Íqán 10, 61, 42) and renunciation (Kitáb-i-Íqán 97, see also Gleanings 34, 139, 242). In the Kitáb-i-Íqán, Bahá'u'lláh writes that He has revealed the mysteries of the Cause of God, so that "haply thou mayest soar on the wings of renunciation to those heights that are veiled from the eyes of men" (Kitáb-i-Íqán 97). The basic elements of this type of spatial symbolism are simple: the physical sky above symbolizes the unseen celestial heavens or worlds of God and the wings symbolize faith, certitude, and the divine virtues by which one is able to ascend from the world of self and suffering into the worlds of God. Such symbolism distinguishes the sacred from the worldly and stresses the unique and special importance of the virtuous and spiritual life.

In addition to the angels accompanying the Maid of Heaven, there is a single angel in the upper right side of the composition (G). This angel is sounding a trumpet announcing the birth of the Revelation of Bahá'u'lláh. This trumpet represents the "mystic trumpet" foretold by Jesus (Matt. 24:31) and sounded in each age to awaken and "cause the dead to speed out of their sepulchres of heedlessness and error unto the realm of guidance and grace" (Kitáb-i-Íqán 26, cf. pp. 116, 196)

 

The Seven Heavens

Behind the Maiden and angels, there are seven heavens and nineteen stars (H). This hierarchal depiction of the heavens is an ancient symbolism based in part on the observation of the moon, the sun, and the observable planets (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn), which together were used in mysticism to denote various divine stages or realms through which one journeyed. This symbolism of seven heavens is mentioned in the Qur'án (e.g., Qur'án 2:29), and in the Kitáb-i-Íqán, Bahá'u'lláh uses this type of symbolism when He refers to the fourth heaven (Kitáb-i-Íqán 89, 133). In this miniature-as in mystical writings involving seven heavens, valleys, or cities-the seven heavens signify the "stages that mark the wayfarer's journey from the abode of dust to the heavenly homeland" (Seven Valleys 16, Oneworld edn.). The stars signify the wise and spiritual teachers and believers of this dispensation, such as the nineteen Letters of the Living (i.e., disciples of the Báb) or the nineteen Apostles of Bahá'u'lláh. A beautiful example of this symbolism can be found in the book of Daniel:

Those who are wise shall shine / Like the brightness of the firmament, / And those who turn many to righteousness / Like the stars forever and ever. (Daniel 12:3)

This symbolism was also used by Jesus, Whose prophetic reference was later explained by Bahá'u'lláh in the Kitáb-i-Íqán.

 

The Síyáh Chál

The center sphere of the miniature represents the world or plain of the Manifestation of God (I). In this sphere the Síyáh-Chál is represented by the dark background and the window with iron bars accompanying the stairs leading down to the bottom of the dungeon. This is not a literal depiction and in fact, there may not have been any windows along the course of the stairs to the bottom of the dungeon. The elements are simply included to symbolize the dungeon in a recognizable way. Bahá'u'lláh was imprisoned in the Síyáh-Chál in 1852 along with other followers of the Báb. The following description of this incarceration is recorded in Nabíl's narrative,

From His [Bahá'u'lláh's] own lips I have often heard the following account: "All those who were struck down by the storm that raged during that memorable year [1852] in Tihrán were Our fellow-prisoners in the Síyáh-Chál, where We were confined. We were all huddled together in one cell, our feet in stocks, and around our necks fastened the most galling of chains. The air we breathed was laden with the foulest impurities, while the floor on which we sat was covered with filth and infested with vermin. No ray of light was allowed to penetrate that pestilential dungeon or to warm its icy-coldness. We were placed in two rows, each facing the other. We had taught them to repeat certain verses which, every night, they chanted with extreme fervour. 'God is sufficient unto me; He verily is the All-sufficing!' one row would intone, while the other would reply: 'In Him let the trusting trust.' " (Dawn-Breakers 631­2)

In an epistle, Bahá'u'lláh writes in connection with these circumstances,

One night, in a dream, these exalted words were heard on every side: "Verily, We shall render Thee victorious by Thyself and by Thy pen." (Epistle 21)

In the miniature, this verse is shown coming from the Maid of heaven (J). The words "by Thyself and by Thy pen" express two of the greatest proofs of the Manifestation of God. According to this verse, it is by these proofs that the Manifestation is rendered victorious. The first is His own Self, meaning the reality of His divinity. The second is His pen, which signifies His Word or Revelation. These two great proofs are known to us today through the sacred writings and authentic traditions that record and document the life and teachings of Bahá'u'lláh. In a tablet, Bahá'u'lláh writes,

The first and foremost testimony establishing His truth is His own Self. Next to this testimony is His Revelation. For whoso faileth to recognize either the one or the other He hath established the words He hath revealed as proof of His reality and truth. This is, verily, and evidence of His tender mercy unto men. He hath endowed every soul with the capacity to recognize the signs of God. (Gleanings 105­6)

In the Kitáb-i-Íqán, Bahá'u'lláh again writes,

no testimony mightier than the testimony of their [the Prophets'] revealed verses hath ever appeared upon the earth. (Kitáb-i-Íqán 206)

The power and sovereignty of the Manifestations of God is made evident in how they transform people, and this is carried out through the spreading of their teachings and the recounting of their lives.

To signify the divine origin of the Word, the Maiden is shown holding the pen. In Her other hand, She holds a chain signifying Bahá'u'lláh's sacrifices for humankind. Bahá'u'lláh refers to the chains when He speaks of His imprisonment in the Síyáh-Chál (Epistle 22) and in His tablet to the Christians, He makes a direct connection between His suffering and our own salvation. He writes, "My body hath endured imprisonment that ye may be released from the bondage of self" (Tablets 12).

 

The Nightingale

Against the background of the Síyáh-Chál, a figural calligraphic rendering of the name "Bahá'u'lláh" appears within an abstract nine-petaled rose and wearing a king's crown. The figural calligraphy represents a nightingale and symbolizes Bahá'u'lláh (C). Bahá'u'lláh sometimes uses the nightingale as a symbol for the Manifestations of God, including Himself (see for example, Kitáb-Íqán 17, 23, 199). The nightingale is a bird known for its beautiful melody which it sings before the dawn.

In the Kitáb-i-Íqán, He writes about the journey of the true seeker to the City of God, which He explains in this instance, signifies the Word of God. He explains that those who valiantly labour in quest of God's will can enter this City and "hearken unto infallible proofs from the Hyacinth of that assembly, and receive the surest testimonies from the beauty of its Rose and the melody of its Nightingale. Once in about a thousand years shall this City be renewed and re-adorned" (Kitáb-Íqán 199). Earlier, in the Kitáb-Íqán, Bahá'u'lláh again uses the symbolism of the Rose and the Nightingale when He prefaces an explanation of prophecies with this council,

Make haste, O my brother, that while there is yet time our lips may taste of the immortal draught, for the breeze of life, now blowing from the city of the Well-Beloved, cannot last, and the streaming river of holy utterance must needs be stilled, and the portals of the Rid.ván cannot for ever remain open. The day will surely come when the Nightingale of Paradise will have winged its flight away from its earthly abode unto its heavenly nest. Then will its melody be heard no more, and the beauty of the rose cease to shine. Seize the time, therefore, ere the glory of the divine springtime hath spent itself, and the Bird of Eternity ceased to warble its melody, that thy inner hearing may not be deprived of hearkening unto its call. This is My counsel unto thee and unto the beloved of God. (Kitáb-Íqán 23­24).

Next to the figural calligraphy, a verse from Bahá'u'lláh's writings is written affirming the oneness of this Revelation with past Revelations. This verse is included here to emphasize that this theophany should be understood as related to past theophanies in purpose and nature, and to testify to the unity of religion, a central teaching of Bahá'u'lláh.

The crown on the nightingale signifies Bahá'u'lláh divine sovereignty. Although a prisoner, He was nonetheless, the King of Glory foretold in Scripture. The testimony of His life and teaching has been recounted and spread throughout the world, raising up a great following of devoted believers such as no earthly king can claim.

 

The Realm of Humanity

The bottom sphere showing the springtime meadow with wildlife, the deer, the hoopee, and sparrows (Persian, Gunjishk, see Seven Valleys 80, Oneworld edn.), represents the world of humanity (J).

The Manifestations are able to bridge the divine world and the world of creation symbolized by this scene because they possess both the divine and the human natures. Hence in the tablet positioned over this sphere, Bahá'u'lláh writes, "I was but a man like others . . ."

 

Notes

1. Shoghi Effendi refers to the birth of Bahá'u'lláh's Revelation as "this supreme Theophany" (The Dispensation of Bahá'u'lláh, see Shoghi Effendi, World Order 97). The word "theophany" is from the Greek word "theos," meaning God, and phainesthai, meaning "to appear."

2. Shoghi Effendi writes that the Maiden, symbolizing the Most Great Spirit that appeared to Bahá'u'lláh, is the "same Spirit" (Messages to America 100, God Passes By 101) represented in Judaism by the burning Bush, in Christianity by the Dove descending to Jesus, and in Islam as the angel Gabriel appearing to Muhammad.

3. The word wisdom is a feminine noun in Hebrew: hokma, Greek: sophia, and Arabic: hikmah.

4. This symbolism-the female personification of Wisdom-is well-known to Christians, particularly those of the Catholic and Eastern traditions, who have built many great churches in Her honor, such as the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul (Constantinople) and other central churches in cities such as Kiev and Novgorod. For parallels between the Maid of Heaven in Bahá'u'lláh's writings and in biblical literature see Michael Sours, "The Maid of Heaven, the Image of Sophia, and the Logos: Personifications of the Spirit of God in Scripture and Sacred Literature," The Journal of Bahá'í Studies 4, 1. (1991) 47­65 and "Immanence and Transcendence in Theophanic Symbolism," The Journal of Bahá'í Studies, 5.2 (1992) 13­56.

 

Bibliography

'Abdu'l-Bahá. Selections from the Writings of 'Abdu'l-Bahá. Comp. by the Research Dept. of the Universal House of Justice. Trans. Habib Taherzadeh et al. Haifa, Israel: Bahá'í World Centre, 1982.

Bahá'u'lláh. Epistle to the Son of the Wolf. Trans. Shoghi Effendi. 3d ed. Wilmette, IL: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1988.

--. Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh. Trans. Shoghi Effendi. 2d. ed. Wilmette, IL: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1976.

--. The Hidden Words of Bahá'u'lláh. Trans. Shoghi Effendi. 3d ed. Wilmette, IL: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1939.

--. Kitáb-i-Iqán (The Book of Certitude). Trans. Shoghi Effendi. 2d ed. Wilmette, IL: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1950.

--. The Seven Valleys and the Four Valleys. Trans. Ali Kuli Khan and Marzieh Gail. 3d. ed. Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 1992.

--. Tablets of Bahá'u'lláh Revealed after the Kitáb-i-Aqdas. Comp. the Research Department of the Universal House of Justice. Trans. Habib Taherzadeh at el. Haifa: Bahá'í World Centre, 1978.

Nabíl-i-A'z.am (Muhammad-i-Zarandí). The Dawn-Breakers: Nabíl's Narrative of the Early Days of the Bahá'í Revelation. Trans. Shoghi Effendi. Wilmette, Ill.: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1974.

Shoghi Effendi. God Passes By. Wilmette, IL: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1974.

--. World Order of Bahá'u'lláh. 2d ed.Wilmette, IL: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1974.

Sours, Michael W. "Immanence and Transcendence in Theophanic Symbolism" The Journal of Bahá'í Studies, 5.2 (1992) 13­56.

--. "The Maid of Heaven, the Image of Sophia, and the Logos: Personifications of the Spirit of God in Scripture and Sacred Literature." The Journal of Bahá'í Studies, 4, 1 (1991) 47­65.

 

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