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The Drawing of Geometric Patterns in Saracenic Art
The Drawing of Geometric Patterns in Saracenic Art
Description

PREFACE

Dr. Hankin having retired from service in India the work of editing this memoir has principally devolved upon me. In going through the manuscript and plates it occurred to me that it might be of interest to the reader to see how these Saracenic patterns, the construction of which has been so ably described by Dr. Hankin in the following pages, can be adapted to modern wall or ceiling decoration. I have, therefore, introduced a plate (Plate XIV) showing two photographs of the Club at Agra, of which Dr. Hankin was a member for over twenty years and in which he supplied designs of his own conception or copies of ancient patterns from Fathpur-Sikri, Sikandra and elsewhere for the decoration of various rooms.

Introduction

ONE of the main characteristics of Saracenic art is its universal employment of geometric patterns often of amazing complexity. A reason for the employment of such patterns is that the portrayal of living things was forbidden by the Muhammadan religion. That a geometric pattern readily be-comes monotonous by repetition goes without saying. Variety, therefore, was indispensable, and this desire for variety inevitably led to the discovery of new and complicated designs, so subtly complicated that it is hardly credible In some cases that the ordinary person could appreciate their nicety or distinguish, for example, between a pattern that contained 15-pointed and one that contained 18-pointed stars, or understand the purpose of changing a scheme of 10-pointed stars to one of eleven.

As to the origin of Saracenic patterns, Captain Creswell of the Egyptian Archaeological Department kindly permits me to take the following quotation from a very interesting letter he has sent me on the subject: -

"The researches of the last twenty years have made it abundantly clear that the Arabs brought nothing architectural with them from Arabia but their very simple ritual requirements. Moreover, the armies of primitive Islam were composed of Bedwin, chiefly from the heart of eastern Arabia, knowing Muhammad and the Quran merely by name, who had gathered together, not to take part in a, religious war for the propagation of the faith, but in the hope of gratifying their lust for loot ……of buildings of a permanent nature dating from the earliest period we have Qusair 'Amra found by Musil. This building, a royal bath and resting house, is of simple plan; it is roofed with tunnel vaults and a small dome, and, most remarkable of all, is decorated with figures, painted by Byzantine artists, including one of the Khalif enthroned; there are inscriptions in Greek and Arabic (date 712-715 A.D.) but everything is quite Byzantine. Slightly earlier is the Dome of the Rock at Jerusalem, which was once decorated without as well as within with Byzantine gold mosaics, and the great mosque at Damascus was decorated in the same way.

"On the Persian front it was to .the Persians that the Arabs turned for help. The first man with ambitions in the architectural line on this front was Ziad ibn Abihi, Governor of Basra, who about 60 A.D. employed Persian workmen, and among them a man who had been a builder to Chosroes, who recommended the cutting of columns from Ahwaz marble, etc., etc.

"The only truly Arab period was the Umayyad, and this dynasty came to an end in 750 A.D. After this the Abbasids came and founded Baghdad, the whole centre of gravity was displaced and at' the present day we cannot point to a single Muhammadan monument in Syria between the eighth and the end of the eleventh century.

"After the fall of the Umayyad dynasty Persian influence dominated, the superior brain power of the Persians displacing the proud but useless Arab grandees, and everything took a Persian tinge.

"Gradually, very gradually only, Muhammadan architecture was born, but it took two centuries to acquire a distinctive character. Samarra succeeded to Baghdad about 836 A.D. Sarre and Herzfeld have excavated Samarra and their publications and those of Viollet show that the geometrical interlaced straightline ornament had not yet been born there.

"The first building in Egypt to deserve the name of architecture was the mosque of Ibn Tulun, which exhibits the dominating influence of Samarra, Ibn Tulun's former home. Tulunide ornament is illustrated in my article ill the Indian Antiquary wherein I published a short note with three plates, The lattice windows of Ibn Tulun belong to two periods: 876-9 and the restoration of Lagin in 1296. The earliest ones are based chiefly on compass work; In Al Azhar the oldest work is not geometrical. In Al-Hakim’s mosque (980-1012) we get the first truly geometric ornament. It occurs in stone, one or two grilles in the north minaret being pierced with a simple six pointed star which may possibly be derived from prolonging the lines of the "Shield of David, until they strike a circumscribed circle.* The basis here suggested actually forms the chief decorative motive of the so-called "Gates of Somnath " brought to India from Mahmud's mausoleum at Ghazni (997-1027).

“This simple grille is the only thing of its kind which certainly dated from Al-Hakim except some simple windows. The first dated example in wood is the mimbar at Hebron dated 484 (=1091 A.D.) ……When we come to the middle of the 12th century we get eight and ten pointed stars, e.g., on the pulpit in the Aqsa mosque at Jerusalem made at Aleppo in 1168 A.D.

"But during the Fatimide period in Egypt (969-1172) patterns such as this are rare in woodwork, quite different decoration being employed. Rich examples of this sort of thing, executed in stucco, are found in Persia at this date. Interesting, also, is the mimbar of the mosque of Sidi Okba at Kairawan. (See Flury "Die Ornamente der Hakim und Azhar Moschee" and Saladin's mono- graph).

," One last and very significant point, nearly all the technical words in Arabic used as architectural terms are of Persian origin."

It is surprising that, despite the complexity of Saracenic patterns, the geometrical knowledge required either for drawing or for designing them is small. Anyone who can draw one line perpendicular to another, who can describe an equilateral triangle, and who can bisect an angle, is capable of copying' these patterns and, with the methods about to be described, of designing new ones. Formal methods of making pentagons or heptagons, such as may be found in works on geometrical drawing; probably were not employed. If it - is - required to draw such figures, or any other polygons, all that is necessary is to describe a circle and to- divide its circumference into the requisite number of equal parts, by trial and error, with the' help of ordinary dividers.

That the builders of the Taj at Agra were incapable of drawing the particular class of pattern about to be described as "geometrical arabesque" seems probable. The method of drawing such patterns is quite unknown at the present day in India and during a visit to Cairo, some years ago, I found no evidence that it was known to the Egyptian workmen. They were making beautiful products of Saracenic art, but appeared never to attempt to reproduce the more complicated patterns that had been used by their predecessors. Lack of knowledge of the methods appears also to handicap European artists when copying the more elaborate achievements of Saracenic art. For instance, Prisse d' Avesnes, in his magnificent work La -decoration Arabe, gives a series of coloured plates. Of these, 64 contain geometric patterns of which no less than 60 belong to the classes of patterns that are easy to draw, namely the hexagonal, the octagonal and the decagonal. The only book known to me containing a large collection of the more complicated' designs is Le trait des entrelacs by J. Bourgoin. This book contains 190 plates of geometric patterns shown as plain line engravings without colour. But elsewhere one looks in vain for illustrations of the more complicated of these patterns in decorative work, the fact being that in selecting these designs for illustration, the European authors have almost invariably chosen those patterns which are relatively easy to draw. "Bourgoin's drawings are made with wonderful skill and industry, but the description he gives of' the geometrical construction of the patterns is of little practical use and serves merely to show how his remarkable skill as a drafts-man has enabled him to surmount the difficulties of his task.

CONTENTS

 

    Page
  List of Plates i
  References iii
  Introduction 1
1. Hexagonal patterns 4
2. Octagonal patterns 6
3. Geometrical Arabesques 10
4. Floral Arabesques 23
5. Decoration of domes 23
  Index i

Sample Pages








The Drawing of Geometric Patterns in Saracenic Art

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PREFACE

Dr. Hankin having retired from service in India the work of editing this memoir has principally devolved upon me. In going through the manuscript and plates it occurred to me that it might be of interest to the reader to see how these Saracenic patterns, the construction of which has been so ably described by Dr. Hankin in the following pages, can be adapted to modern wall or ceiling decoration. I have, therefore, introduced a plate (Plate XIV) showing two photographs of the Club at Agra, of which Dr. Hankin was a member for over twenty years and in which he supplied designs of his own conception or copies of ancient patterns from Fathpur-Sikri, Sikandra and elsewhere for the decoration of various rooms.

Introduction

ONE of the main characteristics of Saracenic art is its universal employment of geometric patterns often of amazing complexity. A reason for the employment of such patterns is that the portrayal of living things was forbidden by the Muhammadan religion. That a geometric pattern readily be-comes monotonous by repetition goes without saying. Variety, therefore, was indispensable, and this desire for variety inevitably led to the discovery of new and complicated designs, so subtly complicated that it is hardly credible In some cases that the ordinary person could appreciate their nicety or distinguish, for example, between a pattern that contained 15-pointed and one that contained 18-pointed stars, or understand the purpose of changing a scheme of 10-pointed stars to one of eleven.

As to the origin of Saracenic patterns, Captain Creswell of the Egyptian Archaeological Department kindly permits me to take the following quotation from a very interesting letter he has sent me on the subject: -

"The researches of the last twenty years have made it abundantly clear that the Arabs brought nothing architectural with them from Arabia but their very simple ritual requirements. Moreover, the armies of primitive Islam were composed of Bedwin, chiefly from the heart of eastern Arabia, knowing Muhammad and the Quran merely by name, who had gathered together, not to take part in a, religious war for the propagation of the faith, but in the hope of gratifying their lust for loot ……of buildings of a permanent nature dating from the earliest period we have Qusair 'Amra found by Musil. This building, a royal bath and resting house, is of simple plan; it is roofed with tunnel vaults and a small dome, and, most remarkable of all, is decorated with figures, painted by Byzantine artists, including one of the Khalif enthroned; there are inscriptions in Greek and Arabic (date 712-715 A.D.) but everything is quite Byzantine. Slightly earlier is the Dome of the Rock at Jerusalem, which was once decorated without as well as within with Byzantine gold mosaics, and the great mosque at Damascus was decorated in the same way.

"On the Persian front it was to .the Persians that the Arabs turned for help. The first man with ambitions in the architectural line on this front was Ziad ibn Abihi, Governor of Basra, who about 60 A.D. employed Persian workmen, and among them a man who had been a builder to Chosroes, who recommended the cutting of columns from Ahwaz marble, etc., etc.

"The only truly Arab period was the Umayyad, and this dynasty came to an end in 750 A.D. After this the Abbasids came and founded Baghdad, the whole centre of gravity was displaced and at' the present day we cannot point to a single Muhammadan monument in Syria between the eighth and the end of the eleventh century.

"After the fall of the Umayyad dynasty Persian influence dominated, the superior brain power of the Persians displacing the proud but useless Arab grandees, and everything took a Persian tinge.

"Gradually, very gradually only, Muhammadan architecture was born, but it took two centuries to acquire a distinctive character. Samarra succeeded to Baghdad about 836 A.D. Sarre and Herzfeld have excavated Samarra and their publications and those of Viollet show that the geometrical interlaced straightline ornament had not yet been born there.

"The first building in Egypt to deserve the name of architecture was the mosque of Ibn Tulun, which exhibits the dominating influence of Samarra, Ibn Tulun's former home. Tulunide ornament is illustrated in my article ill the Indian Antiquary wherein I published a short note with three plates, The lattice windows of Ibn Tulun belong to two periods: 876-9 and the restoration of Lagin in 1296. The earliest ones are based chiefly on compass work; In Al Azhar the oldest work is not geometrical. In Al-Hakim’s mosque (980-1012) we get the first truly geometric ornament. It occurs in stone, one or two grilles in the north minaret being pierced with a simple six pointed star which may possibly be derived from prolonging the lines of the "Shield of David, until they strike a circumscribed circle.* The basis here suggested actually forms the chief decorative motive of the so-called "Gates of Somnath " brought to India from Mahmud's mausoleum at Ghazni (997-1027).

“This simple grille is the only thing of its kind which certainly dated from Al-Hakim except some simple windows. The first dated example in wood is the mimbar at Hebron dated 484 (=1091 A.D.) ……When we come to the middle of the 12th century we get eight and ten pointed stars, e.g., on the pulpit in the Aqsa mosque at Jerusalem made at Aleppo in 1168 A.D.

"But during the Fatimide period in Egypt (969-1172) patterns such as this are rare in woodwork, quite different decoration being employed. Rich examples of this sort of thing, executed in stucco, are found in Persia at this date. Interesting, also, is the mimbar of the mosque of Sidi Okba at Kairawan. (See Flury "Die Ornamente der Hakim und Azhar Moschee" and Saladin's mono- graph).

," One last and very significant point, nearly all the technical words in Arabic used as architectural terms are of Persian origin."

It is surprising that, despite the complexity of Saracenic patterns, the geometrical knowledge required either for drawing or for designing them is small. Anyone who can draw one line perpendicular to another, who can describe an equilateral triangle, and who can bisect an angle, is capable of copying' these patterns and, with the methods about to be described, of designing new ones. Formal methods of making pentagons or heptagons, such as may be found in works on geometrical drawing; probably were not employed. If it - is - required to draw such figures, or any other polygons, all that is necessary is to describe a circle and to- divide its circumference into the requisite number of equal parts, by trial and error, with the' help of ordinary dividers.

That the builders of the Taj at Agra were incapable of drawing the particular class of pattern about to be described as "geometrical arabesque" seems probable. The method of drawing such patterns is quite unknown at the present day in India and during a visit to Cairo, some years ago, I found no evidence that it was known to the Egyptian workmen. They were making beautiful products of Saracenic art, but appeared never to attempt to reproduce the more complicated patterns that had been used by their predecessors. Lack of knowledge of the methods appears also to handicap European artists when copying the more elaborate achievements of Saracenic art. For instance, Prisse d' Avesnes, in his magnificent work La -decoration Arabe, gives a series of coloured plates. Of these, 64 contain geometric patterns of which no less than 60 belong to the classes of patterns that are easy to draw, namely the hexagonal, the octagonal and the decagonal. The only book known to me containing a large collection of the more complicated' designs is Le trait des entrelacs by J. Bourgoin. This book contains 190 plates of geometric patterns shown as plain line engravings without colour. But elsewhere one looks in vain for illustrations of the more complicated of these patterns in decorative work, the fact being that in selecting these designs for illustration, the European authors have almost invariably chosen those patterns which are relatively easy to draw. "Bourgoin's drawings are made with wonderful skill and industry, but the description he gives of' the geometrical construction of the patterns is of little practical use and serves merely to show how his remarkable skill as a drafts-man has enabled him to surmount the difficulties of his task.

CONTENTS

 

    Page
  List of Plates i
  References iii
  Introduction 1
1. Hexagonal patterns 4
2. Octagonal patterns 6
3. Geometrical Arabesques 10
4. Floral Arabesques 23
5. Decoration of domes 23
  Index i

Sample Pages








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