What role does geometry play in Islamic architecture and ornament? Keith Critchlow, explains how the four-square geometry of a mosque represents a foundation which is characteristic of sedentary peoples in the same way that among nomadic peoples radial and conical forms are prominent. It is geometry in Islamic architecture which serves as a link between city and citadel, a citadel and the buildings within it, or between a building and its doorways, screens, grills and windows (“Islamic Patterns: An Analytical and Cosmological Approach,” 1976, p.102). In Islamic ornament as well, geometry plays a key role. Seyyed Hossein Nasr, in the foreword of Critchlow’s book, speaks of the “essentially geometric nature” of Islamic art, whose artists “sought to penetrate into the very structure of physical existence...by ascending to the archetypal world of mathematics to discover the principal structures which are reflected within the very heart of matter” (p.6) Islamic art cultivated a way of ennobling matter through the use of geometric and floral patterns.
This “itch to make patterns” Lewis F. Day tells us in his book, “Nature in Ornament” (1977), was “one of the earliest symptoms of that artistic fever to which the human race has from the first been liable” (p.32). Muslim artists used a minimum of equipment and theory in creating complex geometrical patterns. New patterns were simply variations of older ones, and were reflections of the underlying geometric structure of organic things. As Grabar writes, “the redundant became the main function of an artistic tradition, and as the tradition grew and developed, its every new motif, even inscriptions, were ornamentalized” (“Formation,” p.179). This predilection for abstract and infinite design is especially apparent in floral ornament, particularly in the many forms of the arabesque.
Arabesque technically refers to a certain form of decorative design in flowing lines intertwined. Racinet aptly describes Arabian ornament as being “built up and bound together in all its parts, everything connected...from the circumference to the centre all the interlacings take a common root in the ornament itself” (op. cit., p.22). As Grabar reminds us, Muslim artists adopted many artistic themes from earlier, conquered peoples, but because they could not always be used in their original form, they were often changed into decorative patterns leading to a certain amount of ambiguity between iconographically significant and purely ornamental forms. Arabesque, which the renown authority on decorative motifs, Alois Riegl, considered to be a transformation of a Greek palmette, was only one result of this tendency. Grabar prefers to describe arabesque, not only as a kind of design but also as a way to treat design (“Formation,” p.505).
There are two paradigms of normative Islamic thought which bear upon Islamic ornament, and which may serve to explain the perspective of arabesque as an idea rather than simply as a form. Muslims believe that God alone has the power to make anything permanent, and to avoid competing with God, man’s creations must not attempt to reflect physical reality. Secondly, in the typically Islamic doctrine of atomism it is held that all things are composed of and distinguished by numerous combinations of equal units. That the same combinations should appear would be considered a Divine miracle. The Muslim artist, then, seeking neither to imitate nor compete with God, “becomes free to recompose the units of nature he knows in any way he sees fit, and the more arbitrary and absurd the better” (“Formation,” p.192).
How are Islamic patterns distributed in space? In Islamic ornament there is the possibility for infinite growth. Ettinghausen writes that typically in Islamic ornament, the geometry of the pattern has the potential to multiply and extend itself forever, and it is only the border which introduces an obviously arbitrary break in that pattern (“Man-Made,” p.72). Archibald H. Christie, in his brief description of arabesques, describes the Islamic skill of playing off ground against pattern in which “the several parts of the design are so ingeniously shaped that we are in some doubt whether the design is planned in black upon a white ground or the reverse” (“Pattern Design,” 1969, pp. 108-109). Islamic design can best be defined as a relationship between forms, rather than simply a sum of forms. Moreover, due to the principle of arbitrariness, it is “neither its size nor the ornament’s internal forms which are dictated by anything but itself” (“Formation,” p.189). Racinet adds that in this style the continuity of the ornament completely fills the surface, “where nothing can be taken away without occasioning an unseemly void” (op. cit., p.22). The authors of the very useful teacher’s packet, “The Mathematics of Islamic Art,” (published by The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York), admirably describe how arabesques achieve their two-dimensionality: “In arabesque patterns, the plant designs are often set against a contrasting background, but there is no intention for this foreground and background to create space. The arabesques interlace, weaving over and under in a way that makes them hug the surface” (page i). Characteristic also of Islamic geometric patterns is their tendency to “radiate symmetrically from a central point” (ibid.). Adding color to such patterns serves to distinguish forms and to emphasize rhythms, achieving a resulting harmony which Racinet so praises. In choosing and using colors, it is not the goal of the artist to imitate reality. Through the great liberty the artist exercises in his use of chromatics the severity of the design is redeemed (op.cit., p.3).
Before leaving our discussion of arabesque and geometric patterns, let us briefly consider the metaphysical significance of such designs in Islamic art. Critchlow suggests that the use of frozen crystalline shapes and warm, fluid arabesques complement each other and correspond to the Islamic perspective of a fundamental symmetry of existence which revolves around the four-fold axis of heat and cold, moist and dry. Such patterns which combine arabesques and geometric patterns, are reflective of the idea that time is a flowing image of eternity (op.cit, p.192).
The role of ornament in Islamic art and architecture can hardly be exaggerated. Overshadowing the monumentality of even the most imposing Islamic edifice was its decorative excellence.