In the autumn of 2006, Art of Islamic Pattern tutor Richard Henry from visited Iran in order to research material for a new British Museum course Islamic Geometric Art: Persian Patterns. Richard also gave a public lecture at the Middle East Association in April 2007. This was published in the Journal of the Iran Society. A transcript of this lecture is below. You can also download a pdf of the lecture by clicking on the link below:-


Dome of Bazaar, Kashan, Northern Iran
(Photo: R Henry)

Pattern, Cognition and Contemplation: Exploring the Geometric Art of Iran

Public lecture given by Richard Henry at the Middle East Association

 on 27 April 2007. Published in the Journal of the Iran Society, September 2007.

In the autumn of 2006, with the support of the Iran Society, I travelled to Iran to research material for a new course that I had been invited to develop for the British Museum’s World Arts and Artefacts programme. The World Arts and Artefacts programme is a joint venture between Birkbeck and the British Museum and the course was to be a practical one, focusing specifically on geometric design within the Persian tradition[1]. Whilst I have traveled widely throughout the Middle East and my own work, as a painter, printmaker and tile mosaicist, draws considerable inspiration from the extraordinary tradition of Persian geometric art, I had never visited Iran. For this reason I was very keen to visit the country and to study the patterns in both their cultural and architectural context. I was in the country for four weeks, visiting Isfahan, Shiraz, Kerman, Mahan, Yazd and Kashan, and was fortunate to have the opportunity to meet and interview a number Iranian academics, as well as local craftsmen.

I was first drawn to my study of Islamic art through an interest in mystical philosophy and Pythagorean thought in particular. For many years I have been struck by what can only be described as the numinous quality of Islamic patterns and the sense of sublime tranquility that one experiences in Islamic buildings. I have often wondered whether there is a connection between the presence of geometry and the nurturing of a contemplative state. A closely related question is whether there is a symbolic dimension to the articulation of architectural space. Such thoughts were on my mind when I first arrived in Isfahan. At the time I was reading Henry Corbin’s “The Man of Light in Iranian Sufism”, a book about the spiritual symbolism of orientation. “Orientation”, Corbin writes, “is a primary phenomenon of our presence in the world. A human presence has the property of spatialising the world around it” (Corbin 1971, p. 1). Corbin is not merely concerned with our material orientation to the four cardinal dimensions, but rather “the way in which man inwardly experiences the ‘vertical’ dimension of his own presence” This relates to a common theme within Iranian Sufi literature: the “Quest for the Orient”. This quest is not, it should be emphasised, for an orient that is located on geographical maps, but rather, “the supersensory, mystical Orient, the place of the Origin and of the Return, object of the eternal quest … the heavenly pole.” (Ibid, p. 2)

              North-east elevation of central courtyard in Shah mosque, Isfahan, with Northerly facing entrance to main square offset in background.

The contrast between a heavenly orientation and a more earthly one is most clearly realised in the city plan of Isfahan, where the main square (Naqsh-e Jahan) is orientated according to the cardinal directions and the Shah mosque at the southern end of the square has its main axis offset according to qibla (direction of Mecca). Titus Burckhardt, in his extensive monograph Art of Islam – Language and Meaning, observes that this shift marks “the transition from the outward to the inward world, a swift re-orientation of the soul.” (Burckhardt 1976, p. 171)

It’s worth comparing this symbolic orientation with that of the Christian church, where the central axis is aligned towards the rising sun at the Spring equinox (the symbol of the risen Christ). Whereas the axes of all oriented churches run in parallel, the axes of all mosques and the direction of prayer converge on a single geographical point of the Ka’ba in Mecca. It is only when a gathering of the faithful bow down in common prayer in close proximity around the Ka’ba that this convergence becomes most strikingly apparent. It is important to remember that Ka’ba actually means cube, and the cube is linked to the very idea of the centre, its six faces integrating the four cardinal directions, with the zenith and the nadir, that is, the ontological axis linking Heaven, Earth and underworld. The Ka’ba does not entirely correspond to this scheme, as its four corners more closely correspond the cardinal directions, but this does not detract from a primordial symbolism which predates Islam. According Burckhardt, the ‘axial’ character of the Ka’ba is affirmed according to a well known Muslim legend in which the ‘ancient house’, first built by Adam, was destroyed by flood and then re-built by Abraham and is situated at the base of an axis which traverses the heavens (Burckhardt 1976, p.4). The rite of circumambulation (tawaf) is seen to reproduce the rotation of the heavens around this polar axis, which, in terms of geometric symbolism, could be seen as the archetypal reconciliation of heavenly circle with earthly square.

As I collected visual samples of the many different symmetries employed in the decorative schemes of the buildings in Isfahan, I was very aware of the variety of ‘sunwheel’ (swastika) motifs, commonly displaying both a clockwise and an anti-clockwise turn, or ‘spin’. This motif occurs across a range of cultures. Far from being an exclusively Eastern symbol, the motif is found both in the Far East and Far West, existing amongst indigenous American tribes as recently as the early 20th century (Guenon 2004, p. 54). It is often said to symbolise the rotation of the four elements or seasons around a motionless centre. In Isfahan, I was told that it is essentially a Shi’a symbol, an example of pili – a design in which the name of Ali is encrypted, rotated and reflected. The great Sufi scholar and metaphysician Rene Guenon offers a more a esoteric reading of the design in which it is said to represent the “sign of the Pole” (Guenon 2004, p. 55), the motionless heavenly axis around which the Earth, represented by a cross, revolves, the trailing arms signifying the direction of rotation, or ‘spin’. This direction is, of course, is reversed depending upon whether one is considering the North or the South pole, and both directions of spin are very often represented together in the buildings of Iran.