Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The Alhambra: An Introduction for North American Readers

I recently received an email regarding a new exhibition, titled Symmetry's Portal, by Lisbon-born artist Margardia Sardinha. The show was exhibited at Centro Cultural Jaime Lobo e Silva in Ericeira and opening this past week at Lisbon's Ismaili Centre, which belongs to the Aga Khan Foundation.

The press release begins with this enticing description:

Symmetry 's Portal is an exhibition organized by the artist Margarida Sardinha that has, over a lengthy period of time, been extensively focused on the concepts of symmetry and optical illusion. The exhibition expands geometrically a wide photographic survey of the Alhambra in Granada documented by the artist. This photographic assemblage is used by Margarida Sardinha to deconstruct symmetry and to generate illusory semblances. Symmetry 's Portal is a body of work of optical illusions where the symmetric and random are diluted in three-dimensional works originated from two-dimensional planes.

In order to properly write about M. Sardinha's current work I found myself challenged by my ignorance regarding the central feature of this work, the Alhambra in Granada on the southern plains of Spain. Since learning of the show last week I downloaded several books about the Alhambra to my Kindle and have been surprised yet again by another wonder of the world.

First surprise: Washington Irving, author of the Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle, wrote a book about his journey to the Alhambra in the mid-nineteenth century. Irving, who later completed a five-volume biography of George Washington, had been appointed ambassador to Spain from 1842-45. During this time he took the opportunity to travel through Don Quixote territories to this most unusual palace and fortress complex which had first been established by the Moors when they conquered Spain. Irving, being an author, wrote in great detail and an entertaining manner about the trip to the Alhambra and the marvels he encountered there.

The Alhambra began as an outpost in about the 9th century, was later rebuilt and added onto in the 11th century by the Moorish emir Mohammed ben Al-Ahmar of the Emirate of Granada, who built its current palace and walls. It was converted into a royal palace in 1333 by Yusuf I, Sultan of Granada.

But its history doesn't end there. After the Muslims were removed from Spain, Christian rulers moved in to portions of the Alhambra and added some of their own embellishments. In fact, it was here that in 1492 Christopher Columbus made his presentation to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabel of Spain to obtain funding for that crazy-wild notion of going to India by a direct route West across the Atlantic.

The structure over time fell into disrepair until a much later time it was recognized for the jewel that it was, with restorations initiated in the 19th century.

This history is not, however, the focus of Symmetry's Portal. Rather, it is the remarkable tiling patterns with which this palatial wonder has been decorated. I learned more about this feature of the Alhambra by reading John Jaworski's volume A Mathematician's Guide to the Alhambra.

For those unaware, Islam forbids representation of the human form, hence the "kaleidoscope of colorful tilings, carvings and reliefs" in Islamc architecture. According to Jaworski, the phenomenon that is featured in the Alhambra regarding these designs is that there are examples of all 17 possible tiling patterns here. The designs of the Alhambra thus become a catalog of mathematical forms.

17 is an interesting number. First, as a prime number, it is indivisible. Second, among other things, it is the only known prime that is equal to the sum of digits of its cube (17 to the third power = 4913 and 4 + 9 + 1 + 3 = 17).

To understand  what is going on in the patterns of the Alhambra it is helpful to understand tiling, symmetry and tessellation, the latter being "the tiling of a plane using one or more geometric shapes, called tiles, with no overlaps and no gaps." Many of us have a measure of familiarity with the concept through the etchings of M.C. Escherwho was himself inspired by the Alhambra.* Not all tiling patterns have symmetry, and according to those who have studied this, there can be no more than 17 distinct ways to repeat these motifs. This standard of 17 exists only in Egyptian temples and the Alhambra.

How did these artisans in Egypt and of the Alhambra discover this? How did this all come about? As this is my first introduction to these notions, I can only say that I look forward to learning more, and aim to share more insights from M. Sardinha's penetrating work, which appears to be an outgrowth of concepts that she has been developing for many years.

"Know oh brother ... the study of sensible geometry evokes skill in all practical arts, while the study of intelligible geometry evokes skill in the intellectual arts because this science is one of the portals through which we move towards the knowledge of the essence of the soul, and this is the root of all knowledge..."
~Rasa'il Brotherhood of Purity, translated by S.H. Nasr


* Henri Matisse and David Hockney are additional 20th century artists who found inspiration in the designs of the Alhambra

Photo Credits
Top Right: "Ceiling in Alhambra" by Liam987 - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Lower Photo: "Vista de la Alhambra" by bernjan - Flickr. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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