Zooming In: Geometric Patterns in Islamic Paintings

A detail from a Haft Awrang painting featuring the colorful geometric patterns
Magnification reveals geometric patterns in a detail of a painting of a stained glass window from the Haft Awrang by Jami. F1946.12.147

Amanda Malkin is the Hagop Kevorkian Fund Fellow Paper Conservator at the Freer|Sackler. This is the first in a series of blog posts that explores geometric patterns in Islamic paintings.

While viewing Islamic paintings under the microscope, I developed a great interest in the tiny geometric patterns I observed throughout the folios and set out to learn more about them. Prior to my research, I had not studied the history of Islamic culture and was completely unaware of the Islamic Golden Age, an innovative, experimental, and forward-thinking time in early Islam, which spanned from the ninth to the thirteenth century. During this time, there was a boom in the study of mathematics, physics, geometry, optics, vision, astrology, and many related disciplines. This efflorescence of discovery resulted in the development of new concepts and an expansion of ideas first posited in ancient Greece and Rome.

I began to examine how artisans and manuscript illustrators interacted with mathematicians, and if the techniques used to create geometric patterns in manuscript paintings were a result of those connections. It’s clear from several scholarly articles and publications written on this productive era in Islamic history that artisans and mathematicians were in contact with one another. One treatise, written by the Persian mathematician and astronomer Abul Wafa al-Buzjani (940–998) during the Golden Age, has been used by many scholars to provide evidence of this exposure of artists to mathematicians and those studying geometry. The title of his work, On those Parts of Geometry Needed by Craftsmen, alludes to this interaction. He describes many instances in which he had observed craftsmen practicing geometric constructions and ornamental patterns with mathematicians.

It is also clear from the scholarly literature on this subject that not all artisans were invited to join in these gatherings. The math and scientific communities held those artisans of scientific equipment in much higher regard than artists of other trades, who were considered a lower class. This bias likely excluded many artisans from working directly with mathematicians. The collective ingenuity of the time, however, leads one to assume that they must have discovered many other avenues to acquire and piece together the basic concepts of geometric design and pattern construction.

It’s amazing what an image under a microscope can reveal. In the next post in the series, I’ll take a closer look at the tools and techniques used to create miniature geometric designs.

Learn more about Conservation and Scientific Research and the Islamic art collections at the Freer|Sackler.

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