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Islamic Patterns and M.C. Escher's Tessellations

Overview of Lesson

This lesson provides the cultural background behind Islamic tile work. Students will learn the spiritual significance of the tile work at the Alhambra Palace that inspired M.C. Escher's symmetrical patterns. The lesson explores connections between Islamic spirituality reflected in geometric pattern and M.C. Escher’s philosophy regarding the regular division of the plane.


· Students will discuss the art of Islamic craftsman and their cultural background (Art history).
· Students will compare and contrast the work of M.C. Escher and tile work of the Alhambra Palace in Spain (Art history).
· Students will examine and discuss philosopical connections between the tile work of Islamic
craftsmen and the graphic design of M.C. Escher (Art history and Aesthetics).

Materials and Resources

· Transparency “Islamic Tile Designs.”
· Copies of the student reproducible, “Circle Template
· Transparency “Shapes within a Circle
· Prints of symmetrical works by M.C. Escher

Historical and Cultural Information:
Patterns of the Alhambra

Muslim artists did not include representational images in the decoration of religious monuments. Since Muhammad preached against idolatry and iconic images, the artist’s goal was to avoid any figures that might be mistaken for idols. Rather than using recognizable, realistic images in their art, Islamic artists focused on geometric design. Keith Critchlow, the author of Islamic Patterns: An Analytical and Cosmological Approach, explains that the patterns in Islamic art are more than just a substitute for realistic figures. He describes the patterns and the method in which they are created as having spiritual and metaphysical significance. While representational images stand for figures such as people, objects, or animals, the symmetrical patterns used for Islamic religious ornamentation stand for the innate order of the universe.

The Islamic search for order in the universe is a search for ancient truths that have always been part of the world around us. In Islamic art, the spiritual world is reflected in nature, or the physical world, not through representational images, but through geometry and rhythm. Therefore, in the Islamic culture, math is not a mental exercise, but a reflection of the order found in both the natural and spiritual world. The artists believed that the geometric pattern of tile work could aid the viewer in raising his spiritual understanding. Muslim intellectuals recognized in geometry the unifying intermediary between the material and the spiritual world. These patterns may be seen as symbolizing the Islamic principles of “Tawhid” (the unity of all things) and “Mizan” (order and balance), which are the laws of creation in Islam.

Islamic concentration on geometric pattern draws attention away from the figures in our everyday world and focuses on pure forms that reflect the structure of the universe. One of these forms is the circle. The circle is significant in that it contains both the end and beginning of its own form. In many cultures, the circle is the symbol for eternity, and in Islamic art, the circle is a symbol for wholeness and unity.

Most Islamic patterns are made with a small number of repeated shapes that can be created from a combination of overlapping circles. The shape of the circle is important as a symbol for unity, and as the single shape that provides the basis for the multitude of shapes and patterns found in Islamic design.

While these interpretations have been accepted by many, it is quite possible that the geometric patterns were simply a means of beautifying an empty surface or are what resulted from “playing the game of dividing the plane.”

Background about the Artist: M.C. Escher

Just as the Islamic artists used geometry to reflect the spiritual and natural order of the universe, M.C. Escher became fascinated with the timeless truth found through the repeated form. Before visiting the Alhambra palace, M.C. Escher was already interested in the regular division of the plane. He indicates that he “had developed what he called “an affinity with the Moors. . . long before [he] discovered Alhambra [sic].” He found among the Moors a similar fascination with “the game of dividing the plane”.

Escher describes himself as weak in arithmetic and algebra and states that while he was a little better at geometry, he did not excel in these subjects while in school. (Escher on Escher, 21). With a scant mathematical background, Escher began to play with small congruent shapes, working to give them the shapes of animals. He felt quite alone in his endeavor, finding it hard to believe that no other person shared his passion for filling space with regular shapes:

No matter how much I try, I cannot accept the idea that something so obvious as making small complementary figures recognizable and giving them meaning, function, or purpose would never have occurred to anyone other than me. (Escher on Escher, 103)

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