Tag Archives: manuscript

Zooming In: Tools of the Manuscript Illustrator (part two)

Geometric patterns in Islamic manuscripts

Geometric patterns in Islamic manuscripts

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

It is clear that the complicated geometric patterns I have observed in many manuscript paintings have, at their core, the circle and the square. During my research into the tools and techniques of manuscript painters, I uncovered two schools of thought regarding the working processes and specific methods used to create these miniscule, complex patterns.

The first theory—and my initial assumption—is that Islamic artisans and craftsmen utilized the long-appreciated ruler and compass to create geometric patterns, which are known as girih. It is exciting to see that, by overlapping certain shapes and connecting those shapes with the straight line of a ruler, one can produce endless geometric constructions. This theory, known as strapwork, is accepted by many scholars and institutions that collect and study Islamic art.

It is possible, however, that another method of construction was utilized in ancient Islam, and this is the second, more recent hypothesis. Physicists Peter J. Lu and Paul J. Steinhardt, of Harvard and Princeton Universities, respectively, proposed that, by using a group of five tiles of varying shapes, artisans could more quickly and exactly construct extremely complex geometric designs. These tiles are called Girih tiles, and they are described by the physicists as “equilateral polygons decorated with lines.” The shapes of the polygons are not random but stem from the empty spaces observed within the basic patterns of circles and squares. When you observe, for example, repeated hexagons, you will see that there are additional shapes created between them.

Steinhardt and Lu’s theory is based on the existence of a late fifteenth-century object in the collection of the Topkapi Palace Museum in Istanbul, Turkey, known as the Topkapi Scroll. The scroll was discovered in 1986 and contains drawings and pattern constructions using the five Girih tiles, likely used as a reference document in a craftsman’s workshop during the Timurid dynasty.

In light of the exciting evidence discovered on the Topkapi Scroll, I believe that both methods described above were likely utilized by illustrators in different regions and with varying skill levels, in order to assist them in the manner that best suited their work.

View Peter Lu’s animation of the Topkapi Scroll.

Stayed tuned for Amanda’s third—and final—post in the series.

Zooming In: Geometric Patterns in Islamic Paintings

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.