Tessellations in Islamic Art
29 SEP 2017
A tessellation is a repeating pattern that fills a space without overlapping. In Latin, the word “tessera” means a “small, stone cube.” The mosaics that formed floors and tiles in Roman homes and buildings were often laid out in tessellated patterns. Tessellating patterns and floral designs in complex geometrical arrangements, usually in tiles, are also common motifs in Islamic art.
Historians say that tessellations have appeared in art for thousands of years. They appeared in ancient Sumerian civilization in approximately 4,000 B.C. and were a feature of temples and homes of the period. Tessellations have been discovered in the art of the Egyptians, Persians, Romans, Greeks, Byzantines, Arabs, Japanese, Chinese and the Moors. The kinds of shapes and the coloring techniques differ in each culture. Since Islam forbids the living object as a representation in art, Islamic Moorish art comprises abstract geometric forms.
One of the best examples of Islamic tessellation art is in the Alhambra, a huge palace constructed by the Muslim Moors in the 14th century. The Alhambra stands on a steep, rocky hill by the Darra River, surrounded by forest and mountains, in Granada, Spain. Originally designed as a military installation, it became the seat of King Mohammed ibn Yusuf ben Nasr. In the Alhambra, Muslim Moors installed colored tiles in symmetrical, and even geometrical, patterns. Most of the tiles comprised repeating patterns; thus, they were true tessellations. The Alhambra is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
In Islam, tessellated decorative arts, such as tiles, textiles, pottery and architecture, are often called “zillij,” which is an art with a foundation in “learning, discipline and faith.” Islam teaches that life is based on a universal, cosmic intelligence, so ancient and modern zillij artists try to inspire their viewers into an appreciation of the laws that govern the universe. You can view representations of zillij art in Morocco and in other predominantly Islamic countries and cities, on the walls and floors of mosques, homes, public water fountains, tombs and architecture.
Examples of tessellated zillij tiles appear throughout the Islamic world, but some notable landmarks other than the Alhambra include the Hassan Tower in Rabat, the minaret of the Kutubiyya Mosque in Marrakesh and the Giralda in Seville. The entire older section of Fez, Morocco, is highly decorated with zifflj tiles. For modern examples, you can visit New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art to view the Moroccan Courtyard. In London, the Leighton House Museum's Arab Hall is the "Centerpiece of the house." Popular artist M.C. Escher visited the Alhambra as a young man and was so influenced by it that he incorporated tessellated patterns into his art.