Anyone who has known me for a while knows how much I love the work of Dutch graphic artist MC Escher. While his work is extremely popular and well-recognized (though many might not know his name), what a lot of people don't realize is that Escher was deeply inspired by Islamic art.
Hopefully the tiles above helped answer that question. The tiles are actually a painting done by Escher, based on one of the Alhambra tile patterns. I replicated it to show the extended tessellation pattern more clearly; the actual painting is only one tile. (That makes what I did above…reptiling!) [Deborah, please don't edit that out. It's the highlight of my comedy career.] Escher visited the Alhambra first in 1922 and again in 1936. His work was never the same again.
Prior to 1937, his work was representational, but the effect of seeing the Alhambra was that Escher's work began to incorporate the stunningly intricate and complex mathematics of Islamic geometric patterns. He described tessellations, a mathematical term for tiling without any empty spaces or overlaps, as "the richest source of inspiration that I have ever tapped." Escher's third major period began in 1946 where he used perspective to great effect, creating impossible situations such as Waterfall. By 1956 he began focusing on the infinite, in works such as Snakes and these infinite tessellations below:
Escher considered it a pity that the tessellations were restricted to figures with abstracted geometrical shapes, thinking maybe even it had never occurred to the Moorish artist to use recognizable figures. Personally, I think what people can create with restrictions/guidelines (self-imposed or otherwise) can be infinitely amazing and inspiring.
In Islamic art, the spiritual world is regarded as being reflected in nature through geometry and rhythm. Hence, Islamic artists used geometry as an aid to raise their spiritual understanding as well as the viewer's.
Gelgi quotes the North Texas Institute for Educators on the Visual Arts:
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.
The kicker is the following beautiful insight that will likely stick with me forever, because it so perfectly puts into words what I have always felt when looking at either Escher's work, or Islamic architecture's stunning geometrical expressions of the divine (a sacred and meditative geometry in its own right):
Tessellations are one of the major components of Islamic art. Islamic artists mastered regular division of plane using, in particular, circles on triangular or square grids, because the circle – which has no beginning and no end and thus symbolizes infinity – was considered to be the most perfect geometric form. In mosques, where a wealth of these geometric patterns could be found, one could contemplate the infinite nature of God simply by looking at the walls or ceiling. In short, these geometric forms expressed Islamic artists' fascination with mathematics as a metaphor for divine order and presence.
Look at these few incredible examples of Islamic artistry:
Escher was a mathematical, artistic, architectural, and communicative genius. But let's remember the Muslim artists and mathematicians who hand-carved the tiles. They did the heavy math – and the heavy lifting – hundreds of years before Escher, Penrose, and others. These inspired Muslims worked to great and lasting positive effect, long before their techniques' "discovery" by Europeans. Islam's arguably most-known and strangely least-acknowledged visual brand – by those who wish to believe Islam is nothing but barbarians wielding swords – is its geometric artistry and its indelible impact on art, architecture, and history. It's almost as if acknowledging the mindblowing beauty of these rivals to the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel or Notre Dame might somehow bring to light that Islam isn't a religion of crazed maniacs and bloodthirsty freaks. It's actually a way of life that values contemplation, peace, beauty, order, unity, and balance.