In Islamic art, geometric patterns were combined, interlaced, and arranged in intricate combinations, thus becoming one of the most distinguishing features of the art. Islamic artists appropriated key elements from the classical tradition, then elaborated upon them, resulting in a form of decoration that stressed the importance of unity and order. The complex patterns found are dependent on the artists’ choices about what aspects of the pattern to highlight.
The four basic shapes from which the more complicated patterns are constructed are: circles, squares or four-sided polygons, the star pattern derived from squares and triangles inscribed in a circle, and the multi-sided polygons. Although the sources for both the shapes and the intricate patterns already existed in late antiquity among the Greeks, Romans, and Sasanians in Iran, geometric ornamentation reached a pinnacle in the Islamic world.
The circle – which has no beginning and no end and thus symbolising infinity – was considered to be the perfect geometric form; therefore, in mosques, where a wealth of the geometric patterns can be found, one could contemplate the infinite nature of God simply by looking at the walls or the ceilings. However, the complex patterns found on many objects comprise a number of different shapes and arrangements, allowing them to fit into more than one category.
Geometric patterns along with calligraphy, and vegetal patterns comprise the non-figural decoration in Islamic art. At first, the artisans employed recognisable floral elements within geometric frames, but eventually they developed a new type of ornamentation in which simple vegetal elements such as tendrils and leaves were subject to the rules of geometry rather than to the laws of nature. This type of ornamentation, which came to be known as arabesque (meaning from the land of the Arabs), appeared in its geometric form in the middle of the tenth century. Vegetal forms were assimilated into geometric frameworks, whereby stems and leaves were given geometric shapes and geometric frameworks sprouted stems and leaves.
The arabesque style is characterised by its rhythmic waves, often implying an infinite design with no beginning or end. One of the contributing factors to the infinite pattern of the arabesque is the growth of leaves, flowers or other motifs from one another rather than from a single stem.
Perhaps the vegetation evoked themes of paradise, described in the Qur’an as a garden, while geometry may evoke the diversity in the unity of God’s creation or the sophistication of mathematics in the Islamic lands. The artists may have been deliberately ambiguous, allowing for the personal interpretation of the art.
Department of Islamic Art, The Nature of Islamic Art, in Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, Metropolitan Museum of Art (accessed 2016)
Sheila R. Canby, Islamic Art in Detail, Harvard University Press. 2005
Compiled by Nimira Dewji