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Alan Witschonke
Art historians get fooled again
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The Gunbad-i Kabud tomb tower in Maragha, Iran was built c. 1197 AD.
I read an interesting article in the Boston Globe the other day (2/26 to be precise). I’ve been illustrating a non-fiction children’s book about the Taj Mahal so I’ve been looking at a lot of art from Persia and India, particularly art from the Mughal empire (1526-1746). When the Mughals invaded India and made Agra their capital city, a period of great artistic and intellectual growth occurred. Although the Mughals were Muslim and India was mostly Hindu, they co-existed peacefully. Hindu artisans were brought to the Mughal court and produced some of their finest work. Their work was astonishingly detailed with incredibly fine lines that look like they were done with a quill pen but were actually done with brush. The medium of choice was opaque watercolor.

Anyway, I digress. Getting back to the article, a PhD candidate in Harvard’s Physics Department, Peter Lu, was struck by the beauty of the decorations on an ancient building in Bukhara, Uzbekistan in 2005. He thought the geometric patterns might be related to ones he had written about in his undergraduate thesis at Princeton – that he thought hadn’t been discovered until the 1970s when British physicist Roger Penrose studied them! After poring over pictures of Islamic art and architecture he concluded: “The art, in countries from Iran to Turkey to Uzbekistan, ‘reveals a much greater degree of mathematical sophistication than we had thought.”
There are five essential polygons in the mosaic patterns: The pentagon (1), rhombus (2), hexagon (3), bowtie (4), and decagon (5). Historians believed that the intricate patterns were painstakingly drafted using a compass and straight edge. But it was discovered that by arranging a combination of the five polygons, the same pattern could be easily replicated by keeping only the decorative lines on the tiles.
Given all the suspicions, misunderstandings and mistrust of that region of the world and conjecture about whether or not Iran wants to build nuclear warheads, it’s soothing for the soul to read something positive about their contributions to art and culture. So that’s my art, civics, science and mathematics lesson for this week.
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Witschonke is teaching at TutorMill, an online mentoring site for students of illustration!