The Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam has been taking a fresh look at the world-famous Dutch graphic artist M.C. Escher this summer. The exhibition ‘Escher Meets Islamic Art’ examines for the first time ever the way in which Escher was inspired by Islamic art.
Islamic art comprises geometric prints and tessellations which connect to form infinitely repetitive designs. They are beautiful in their simplicity, creating shapes and patterns that simultaneously satisfy and intrigue the eye of the observer. They invite the observer to contemplate the nature of the relationship between beauty and geometry: Why do we find satisfaction in mathematical rhythms? Can they offer us an insight into the eternal? Do they demonstrate a connectivity between nature and the spiritual?
For Muslim intellectuals, this relationship between beauty and geometry is an expression of the fundamental truths of Tawhid and Mizan, without committing Shirk (idolatry – the unforgivable sin) . Tawhid, the ultimate unity of all things, emanating from the Oneness of God, is depicted in the patterns which tessellate into infinity. Faithful Muslims attending Mosque can contemplate the oneness of God simply by looking at the designs on the walls or the ceiling. The fact that these tessellating designs are found to be so pleasing to the eye is evocative of the order and balance of the universe, expressed through the laws of geometry. For the Islamic artists, beauty and truth come together in geometric designs to express the perfection of God.
The Shah Mosque, Isfahan, Iran.
The Dutch graphic artist, Maurits Cornelis Escehr (1898-1972) was both fascinated and inspired by the Islamic patterns he saw during a visit to the Alhambra palace in Spain in 1922.
Tile mosaic, Alhambra Palace
The simple repetition of a plane is a principle which Escher experimented with to produce his own tessellations:
Lizard – M.C.Escher (1942)
In many of Escher’s tessellations, there is a clear reference to the geometric shapes and principles used in the Islamic art that he saw during his visit. In particular, Escher’s circular tessellations reflect the Islamic principle of eternity, as although a circle is depicted, in theory the pattern can repeated infinitely as the circle expands.
Circle Limit with Butterflies – M.C.Escher (1950)
Escher’s tesselations fascinate the observer as they depict scenes which are both realistic and impossible. Why not explore his work further by visiting the official Escher website: http://www.mcescher.com
Key questions to consider:
- Why do we find mathematics and geometric designs so satisfying to look at?
- Can geometry point us towards a greater understanding of the connected nature of the universe?
- What, if anything, do mathematical laws suggest about the nature of God, or the existence of God?
And of course, use some squared paper and have a go at creating your own Escher-esque tesselation.