The search for an earthly paradise has been underway since us humans were kicked out of the proverbial garden. Whether it’s Coleridge’s opium-induced revelry in Xanadu, or Homer’s musings on Elysium, or just dreams of a trip to Club Med, people throughout the ages have fantasized about a perfect place where love, beauty, and harmony rule. So where the hell is this place, already?
Maps of Paradise, a new book by Alessandro Scafi, collects over one hundred attempts by mapmakers and artists from the eighth century to the present to chart the geography of paradise.
Scafi is a lecturer in medieval and Renaissance history at the University of London, where he became fascinated by the medieval idea of an earthly utopia. “I came to research maps of paradise after repeated encounters with the cliché that medieval people believed in monsters and marvels so readily that they even charted the location of paradise on their maps,” Scafi tells Co.Design. “I discovered that the tradition of mapping the Garden of Eden had continued well beyond the Middle Ages, up to our own time, and that it expressed in visual form a very complex intellectual history.”
The illustrations in Scafi’s book feature nymphs in the Garden of Hesperides picking golden apples and cupids feasting on grapes and wine in the Elysian Fields. Then, there are modern visions of paradise, like contemporary travel ads, one promising that “Paradise begins in Air Mauritius.”
Scafi cites one of his favorite images as woodcut that depicts the beauty of God’s creation in the first Lutheran Bible. Nude humans frolic without shame in lush green pastures, in harmony with the birds and the beasts of Earth. A benevolent red-robed God smiles upon them. “I find all images accounting for the human yearning for a heaven on Earth very beautiful and touching,” Scafi says.
Contemporary artists, too, lust after elusive utopias: in 2002, Swiss artists Hendrikje Kühne and Beat Klein created “Map of Paradise,” a huge cartographic collage of a world composed entirely of images from holiday resort brochures. Palm trees, endless empty sandy beaches and brightly-colored swimming pools all promise bliss.
And in “Paradise Under the Ceiling,” Russian artists Ilya and Émilia Kabakov advise setting aside space below the ceiling of your own room and packing it with familiar, trusted and much-loved objects, in order to create a paradise-like realm that’s always within reach.
The only thing missing from Scafi’s cartography of the sublime is Coolio’s “Gangsta Paradise.”
You can buy Maps of Paradise, published by University of Chicago Press, for $40 here.